Sunday 15 May 2011

Torturing Gollum - the implications


The three main heroes of Lord of the Rings torture Gollum at some point:

1. Gandalf: "I endured him as long as I could, but the truth was desparately important, and in the end I had to be harsh. I put the fear of fire on him, and wrung the true story out of him, but by bit, together with much snivelling and snarling."

2. Aragorn: "He will never love me, I fear; for he bit me and I was not gentle. Nothing more did I ever get from his mouth than the marks of his teeth. I deemed it the worst part of all my journey, the road back, watching him day and night, making him walk before me with a halter on his neck, gagged, until he was tamed by lack of drink and food, driving him ever towards Mirkwood."

3. Frodo: "Tie one end to his ankle" (...) Sam tied the knot. The result surprised them both. Gollum began to scream, a thin tearing sound, very horrible to hear. (...) "It hurts us, it hurts us", hissed Gollum. "It freezes, it bites! (...) Take it off! It hurts us." - "No, I will not take it off you", said Frodo, "not unless" - he paused a moment in thought - "not unless there is any promise you can make that I can trust".


Tolkien is one of my main mentors: I take him to be a man of great wisdom; certainly much greater wisdom than my own.

In general, and specifically here, I read Tolkien to learn from him - not to critique him.

In the context of LotR, Gandalf, Aragorn and Frodo are presented as having behaved properly in the above situations, and I accept that they did behave properly.

So why mention it?


In this instance we can perceive that Gandalf, Aragorn and Frodo's behaviour illustrates the falsity of the mainstream modern ethical principle that relief of suffering ought to be the primary moral principle; and the common moral belief that torture is impermissable under any circumstances whatsoever.


The examples illustrate the way that morality works. Moral dilemmas arise when there is a clash of moral principles - and they are resolved by choosing the higher over the lower principle.

For a mainstream modern Liberal/ Leftist who subscribes to the principle that torture must be absolutely forbidden under any circumstance whatsoever, the actions of Gandalf, Aragorn and Frodo would be classified alongside those of orcs who enjoy the 'sport' of torturing captives.

But for anybody who holds a primary moral principle other than that of minimizing suffering, there may arise situations in which - as Gandalf, Aragorn and Frodo exemplify - it was permissable, indeed it was necessary - to torture Gollum.


Poor Smeagol. Poor Gandalf, Aragorn and Frodo. Poor all of us.



Mike Kenny said...

Very interesting--I've been watching a lot of the TV show '24' lately and noticed a similarity in its story telling with that of Lord of the Rings--the converging plots leading to eu-catastrophes (I noticed this from reading Thomas Shippey's Author of the Century), actions of individuals having implications beyond the individuals knowledge (got this from reading Shippey too), pervasive evil, the seductive, corrupting quality of power, the Christ-like protagonist taking on burdens and self-sacrificing (Frodo and Jack Bauer), but I hadn't noticed the torture parallel until now--torture is used in 24 too, and it seems to be good when it's subordinated to helping a greater good, but not when done for revenge, and even when it's done for the greater good, the danger is that evil masquerades as 'the greater good'. I suppose 24 is probably less thought out than LOTR. Also it seems to have some PC elements. You might like it--I could imagine you having a lot to say about it given its similarities to LOTR, and also because of some of its PC-ness.

I also note torture seems like a central concept in Christianity--Christ submits himself to torture to save humanity, and the torture of sinners in hell is seen as necessary I guess.

Torture sort of gets to an essential about good and evil--to submit to torture for others is arguably the most altruistic thing you can do, whereas to torture someone else for your own gain is arguably the pinnacle of evil. In other words, using yourself for others' good is good, using others for your own good is evil.

ctdonath said...

"a mainstream modern Liberal/ Leftist who subscribes to the principle that torture must be absolutely forbidden under any circumstance whatsoever"

A common failing of the Right is not realizing that the Left sees itself as, by default, exempt from law when it sees fit. Equality for all...but some are more equal than others.

Wurmbrand said...

I wonder about Aragorn summoning the Dead and compelling them to participate in the war against Mordor. This seems awfully close to the cursed practice of necromancy.

I take it that Sauron is called "the Necromancer" on account of the Ringwraiths, who are dead men.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Dale - You seem to be right that by a strict definition Aragord is practicing Necromancy.

Yet, of course, we perceive that he is acting well in this specific situation.

So it is a useful example to ponder.

IMHO The problem lies with our 'modern' (several hundreds of years old!) habitual perception of justice as rule-following.

But natural justice, as practiced in ancient times, seems to have been based on character. In England c 1350, if someone was accused of murder the defence essentially involved bringing forward character witnesses - of course the jury would probably know the person accused already.

If they were a 'good' person they were innocent, if a bad person (or a stranger) they were guilty. I gather that the court did not, or hardly, examine the crime itself.

On this conception of justice and morality, and to simplify, good acts are done by good men when acting well - and vice versa. So the specifics of Aragorns act - that it was technically necromancy - are not relevant since Aragorn was a good man, acting from good motives - for the benefit of the free peoples etc.

Of course rule following is a major part of justice, but we moderns have come to believe that the justice lies in the matchup of rules and in the objective behaviour. But this way of thinking is unnatural to humans - it is trying to prevent a small proportion of miscarriages of justice by means of wrecking the principles of justice. Impartiality at the price of insanity. Justice can perhaps only be properly delivered in a system where people know each other - know each other's characters; and bu trying to make a system based on justice-for-strangers we have alienated The Law from natural law, from morality.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ Mike Kenny - some good points there. Traditional Christianity would seem to agree - since martyrs - including those who maintain their faith unto death in the face of torture - are regarded as 'instant Saints', with a high place in the heavenly hierarchy.

Of course the real point is not that they are 'instantly' that their martyrdom shows that their faith was deep and powerful. And Christianity is about anyone being able to be saved from whatever prior situation by deep powerful faith.

Gyan said...

I object to the undefined use of the word "torture".

The good guys in Tolkien do not make sport of their captives. They are strongly distinguished in this from the Orcs.

They interrogate him, sometimes roughly, but a line is never crossed in which pain is sought to be inflicted in itself.

Moderns jump to quickly to conclusions and are overly rationalistic. Ponder again the point Tolkien makes by contrasting the attitude of good guys and orcs towards captives.

Necromancy refers to illicit liberties taken with the corpses. Aragorn had no dealing with corpses, only with ghosts.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Gyan - I completely agree with the spirit of your comment - and so would the other commenters, I feel sure.

What is being noted here is that *when applying modern criteria* - that is to say narrowly-legalistic criteria, it could reasonably be argued that these examples constitutes torture/ necromancy - or that it *ought* to do.

Much of modern Leftism indeed boils-down to shifting definitions of things like torture in the direction of greater inclusiveness.

I also agree that it is important to define the borderline between tough interrogation and torture - and also that this is something which Leftsist refuse to do; in case somebody accuses them of approving 'torture' by re-defining whatever is the toughest permissable interrogation technique as being *actually* torture.

(Americans will know what issue I am referring to here.)

But could I make a comment on your comment - it is a typical politically correct phrase to say 'I object to' when introducing a distinction; as if it was my job not to offend you, and as if when you are offended then I am morally at fault.

I know this is not what you meant, but that was my first impression.

Gyan said...

I write from India and thus not fully aware of the expressions of British political correctness. Plus English is not my first language.

Focus on suffering was Buddhist idea and it seems that modern British have turned from Christianity to Buddhism.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Gyan - I agree.

I see (Zen-type, non-animistic) Buddhism as a way of *coping* with the suffering of the world essentially by rendering oneself insensible (indifferent) to it by learning advanced meditation techniques.

Moderns do the same but using i-Phones.

Daniel said...

Regarding Aragorn and the Dead, I always thought of it more as an echo of Christ harrowing the dead in Hell.

Sauron prolonged unnaturally the "lives" of the Ringwraiths and created beings of pure darkness and fear. Aragorn ended the unnaturally prolonged
"lives" of those in the Valley of the Dead, thus releasing them into peace.

And while there was necro involved, I don't see the mancy. He simply calls the dead to do their sworn duty, never casting a spell nor making any potion. He did not change their essence through magic, only called them to duty.

Wurmbrand said...

Gyan, with reference to your comment on Aragorn's necromancy:

I think you are referring to necrophilia, not necromancy. Necromancy is conjuration of the dead. Aragorn "conjures" the Dead when he summons them to the Stone of Erech and when he commands them. By one narrow definition of necromancy Aragorn is not a necromancer, in that he does not command the dead to tell him the future.

But if we use this narrow definition of necromancy (that it is the conjuring of the dead in order to demand that they reveal the future), then Sauron is, so far as I can tell, not a necromancer either.

I am not equating Aragorn and Sauron. All the same I would say that Aragorn's action should disturb Jewish and Christian readers, at least, more than it appears to me to do.

It could be argued that Aragorn is living long before God gave the Mosaic Law that forbade conjuring the dead. Yet Aragorn's act seems problematic over against Natural Law. Tolkien himself seems to see it as something horrific, if not definitely horrible.

Mr. Charlton's comment about justice is worthy of consideration, of course.

Wurmbrand said...

... I just saw your comments, Daniel -- thank you for your thoughts in the second and third paragraphs of your message.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Daniel - that seems like a valid distinction. But some would be convinced by Dale's reasoning also.

My point is really that while Aragorn might well be acquitted of necromancy if Dale was accusing him and Daniel was defending him, it is actually a moral mistake to regard the situation in this way - although we take it for granted in the modern world.

In ancient times, somebody like Saruman (sorry Dale!) might have accused Aragorn of Black Magic using technical arguments - but a wise judge (such as Elrond) would have known or soon discovered that Aragorn was a man of utter integrity while Saruman (of many colours) was a power-crazed, logic-chopping charm-merchant with a long history of lies and deception - and have dismissed the case on that basis.

ctdonath said...

Note at Aragorn did not set up the situation; they were sentenced to that fate long before, and Aragorn was dubbed executor of that sentence without choice. They wished release from their "purgatory", and he needed passage to prevent grave losses in a war. Neither seemed keen on the resolution save for it being the best option for everyone.

The theorized objection to the act does not account for the alternatives being worse.

ctdonath said...

The theorized objections also fail to note that the accused are not subject to soverign law, they ARE the sovereigns who make the law. Aragorn was the king of men. Elrond was the king of elves. Gandalf was an Ainuran immortal spirit, to wit representative of God. Even mere Frodo acted at that point by right of savior.

They were not subject to laws made by ignorant mortals. And as I tried to note earlier, such mundane laws may be imposed as absolute, but those ignorant mortals who impose them are quick to exempt themselves when unconsidered special cases arise; few special cases have such gravitas as disposition of the One Ring, and few have such authority to alter such law as exemplified by The Fellowship.

Wurmbrand said...

I'm not going to look it up now, but in C. S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength, the issue of the rightness of using magic against evil people arises. Merlin has revived and will be the agent who attacks them. Some of the good characters discuss the matter and it is suggested that the distinction between what is lawful and what is unlawful becomes ever sharper; a modern man should not do what Merlin may rightly do.Perhaps this is close to what Mr. Charlton says in his first response here.

In The Abolition of Man, Lewis argues that development from within the Natural law or Tao is possible. He says there is a difference, and a real advance, between "Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you," and "Do to others as you would that they should do unto you." Samson is an Old Testament, not a New Testament, hero; he destroys a crowd of his enemies and himself (blinded). One could say that this process of development occurred in post-NT times: the New Testament does not prohibit slavery, but few Christians indeed would advocate it.

Aragorn, again, is living long before the calling of Abraham or the giving of the Law to Israel. What he does (one may argue) in summoning the Oath-breakers is licit and, indeed, as Daniel suggests, merciful. Yet what Aragorn did (supposing it possible) would be something forbidden now.

I wonder if Tolkien would not affirm some such view as this.

Brett Stevens said...

Many characterize conservatives as saying the ends justify the means.

(a) This is because suffering is inherent to life and cannot be eliminated. In fact, the challenge of life is to love it despite the certainty of suffering.

(b) Conservatives also recognize mortality and aging, unlike liberals. In the conservative view, life does not last; it is a stretch of time you expend toward goals so it is significant.

Torture (of the somewhat mellow kind presented in LOTR) is one tool toward a good end. In the books, there is only one method which cannot be pointed toward good ends, and that is the self-referential ring (which I swear must have been inherited from the Lydian, Gyges).

Wurmbrand said...

The passage in That Hideous Strength is in Chapter 13, Section 4. The speaker is Dr. Dimble.

"Good is always getting better and bad is always getting worse: the possibilities of even apparent neutrality are always diminishing. The whole thing is sorting itself out all the time, coming to a point, getting sharper and harder. ....But about Merlin. what it comes to, as far as I can make out, is this. There were still possibilities for a man of that age which there aren't for a man of ours."

However, there are important differences between what Merlin does and what Aragorn does.

And I apologize for my carelessness in neglecting to refer to our own Dr. (not Mr.) Charlton.

Jason Fisher said...

Interesting conversation! I've posted some thoughts on my own blog, not so much about the torture of Gollum, but more about the subject of the comments. Would welcome any feedback from any of you. :)

N.E. Brigand said...

It's ten months later, but I thought I'd note that there was a 2005 article on this subject in issue 43 of Mallorn (pp. 38-42) by Adam Rosman, titled "Gandalf as Torturer: The Ticking Bomb Terrorist and Due Process in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings". I haven't read it, but Rosman apparently finds Tolkien at fault here. I am also familiar with an online discussion from 2009 of Beorn's torture and execution of prisoners.

Bruce Charlton said...

@NEB - thanks for commenting.

John Cowan said...

I think you are misreading what Gandalf says. To put the fear of [something] on [someone] is to threaten them with the thing, not to actually use it. I see no evidence that Gandalf actually burned Gollum, which would be torture indeed.

As for Frodo, he isn't using the pain of the rope against Gollum: it's a byproduct of restraining Gollum, and the fact that it hurts him is unavoidable — they have no other rope.

Lastly, I am a liberal, by which I mean that I think cruelty is the worst thing we humans do to one another. And I also think that people who engage in torture (as opposed to suffering it, as Christ and his martyrs did) have put themselves on the side of Pilate, and of the Adversary. Necessity is the plea of tyrants and would-be tyrants.

Bruce Charlton said...

@JC - I think your comment highlights the point behind my posting.

A other-worldly Christian such as Tolkien will have a fundamentally different ultimate focus and perspective than you do as a liberal - hence necessarily this-worldly.

As a result you are in the position that if you want to salvage Tolkien as a moral writer, you *must* contend that he did not really regard torture as the least worst, necessary option under any circumstance; so you are obliged to interpret these three events in a way that keeps then on the right side of a highly specific definition of torture which you choose to apply in these circumstances.

But if Gandalf, let's say, heating up an iron in the fire and brought it towards Gollum in such a way that G believed he was going to have it pressed against him within the next five seconds and thus confessed - I presume you would regard this behavior as torture if it happened in your local police station - so I don't find your argument very convincing when you use the fact that the 'branding' didn't actually happen to say that it isn't really torture!

This is because for a liberal torture is the worst thing and cannot be accepted under any possible circumstance; but this is not the case for a Christian - for a Christian 'damnation' is the worst thing, and if torture is not the worst thing then there are necessarily going to be situations when it is necessary (which is not of course to say that anything is permitted).

But I agree that I misinterpreted the Frodo example because I forgot that Gollum needed to be restrained so they could not just take off the elven rope. On the other hand, to use the pain of the elven rope to coerce Gollum into swearing an oath... surely that was to *use* the pain in the same way as a deliberate torture?

Of course, the harsh fact was Gollum must swear not to harm Frodo or else be killed; or the quest would fail - so it was a *merciful* act to allow G the option to swear loyalty - even if under coercion of pain...

This is why when we read this scene Frodo seems just - because he is just.

John Cowan said...

I write in haste, unfortunately, so this is over-terse.

There are, of course, Christians who are liberals. (If you disagree, see Lewis's explanations, which are better than anything I could give.)

I by no means think that Tolkien's value as a writer has to do with his personal morality, still less the personal morality of his characters, even the "good" ones. He himself would agree: they are at best virtuous pagans.

For a Christian, damnation is not something we do to each other, so it doesn't meet my criterion.

As for Frodo's circumstances, they don't match any in our world. We are not called on to make direct physical resistance to dark powers as such, only to their dupes.

Bruce Charlton said...

@JC - well, we disagree completely. Reasoning is elsewhere on this blog.

In Lewis's lifetime, fifty years ago, Leftism was not so obviously anti-Christian (nor indeed so anti-Christian) as it is now.

Now you have to be blind to deny it - but, of course, most people are blind/ed.

ctdonath said...

Alas, the term "liberal" has been wrecked in modern usage. Anyone who would use the term "pro choice" as a euphemism for killing children yet would oppose non-public schooling, armed self defense, public profession of Christianity, keeping & raising "undesirable" children, or a host of other choices is hardly "liberal". I use "Leftist" instead, being a mostly meaningless indicator of those views which, thru a fluke of coincidence, are on the opposite side of Senate chambers from where I would likely sit.

Those fitting the term today bear little resmblance to those so labelled in the past. Our Founding Fathers were liberals - and polar opposites of the "liberals" today.

Bruce Charlton said...

ctd - I don't like to use the term 'liberal' myself, because in Britain through most of my life it meant something like 'Centre-Right, pro-business' - a party of farmers, self-employed and small businessmen.

But now Liberals are at the extreme Left of the political mainstream, and of course the whole spectrum has moved Left.

As a reactionary (see my blog Bruce Charlton's Miscellany) I would, however, regard *all* of these, and the Founding Fathers, as examples of Leftism/ Progressivism - all leading in the same direction and away from tradition, orthodoxy, divinely-ordained monarchy, hierarchy and the rest.

Troels said...

@Dale - Sauron was not called 'the Necromancer' because of the Ringwraiths. These were not dead, although they weren't really living either - Tolkien calls them 'undead' (implying something that ought to be dead, but isn't).

What earned Sauron the name of 'Necromancer' was his practices with houseless Elvish fëar roughly equivalent to souls that had refused the after-death summons to Mandos. This is described in 'Laws and Customs among the Eldar' which can be found in Morgoth's Ring

Aragorn's practices, however, can very well be described as necromancy according to Tolkien's definition which involves the living communing with the fëar of the dead. In that case it could, however, possibly be argued that this was actually an obligation that was put on Aragorn as a result of his heritage. Kingship in Tolkien is not as much a right as it is an obligation — it is a heavy burden that is put on the King's shoulders, and one that can only be inherited.

Another example of Tolkien's protagonists being involved in activities that I find reprehensible (even more so than I do the torture of Gollum, though I also find this highly problematic) is the game of counting Orc-heads between Gimli and Legolas in the Battle of the Hornburg. The whole Helm's Deep sequence is written very much with the older view of Orcs as demonic creatures created by Morgoth, and of course this game is reminiscent of the Old Norse heroic legends, but is put in a context (LotR) that is leading up to his later views according to which the Orcs was corrupted Children of Ilúvatar that were, e.g. to be spared if they surrendered.

Much as I admire Tolkien's writings, I do not find myself compelled to agree with him about everything — certainly not about matters of ethics, religion and politics. On the other hand I suppose I would not be able to admire his writings as I do if I disagreed with him about everything ;-)

Bruce Charlton said...


That's very interesting - I had missed or forgotten that part of Morgoth's Ring.

I also found you comment at Lingwe very enlightening. Sound's spot-on to me:

When I was your age (!) I also felt relaxed about disagreeing with Tolkien when he was too reactionary/ not sufficiently 'liberal' (as I then perceived it).

Needless to say I have changed since then! And now where I think I disagree I have at the back of my mind that I may well turn-out to be the one who is wrong...

Anonymous said...

Hello Bruce,

Very interesting discussion, indeed!

- The morality of the torture of Gollum and some questions for thought:

(Waiter! This conversation isn't very good!)

Gandalf – in his interrogation of Gollum, only by the fear (emphasis added) of fire was Gandalf able to get the true story out of him. Gollum was not sorry for his deeds nor was he willing to tell Gandalf things that could save a great many lives, possibly even the whole of Middle-Earth, from Sauron. Gandalf did not need to physically hurt Gollum to put fear into him as can be imagined in the way Gandalf spoke and acted when Bilbo accused him of wanting the ring for himself. Is the terrible, shadowy stare of a wizard using the fear of fire (he possessed Narya, the elven Ring of Fire) to interrogate a murderer equal to torture?

Aragorn – his harsh treatment of Gollum was after he had been bitten and would not willingly walk towards Mirkwood. If another human being were to bite you, would you respond with gentleness? What would your first reaction be and would you possibly regret it afterwards? Aragorn’s statement showed that he obviously did regret not being gentle with Gollum. If you bit them back (which Aragorn did not do) or gagged them to prevent being bit by them again, would that be considered torture? If you handcuffed or haltered at the neck a murderer whom you did not wish to escape or to commit further murder(s), would that be considered torture? If a parent punishes their child by sending them to bed without dinner, while clearly not starving them to the point of any possible physical harm, with the intent that their hunger might remind them in the future to do the right thing, would that be considered torture? (I think most people would agree that last example of possible torture would be quite a stretch.)

Frodo – Again, the handcuff or halter of a murderer who just tried to kill you, would that be considered torture? Also, after Gollum had calmed down and spoke his promise, it did not seem to “hurt” him nearly as severe? Is it possible that the rope had a power to cause (or the illusion of causing) a severe freezing feeling to anyone false that touches it? Also, Sam received the rope from the elves of Lothlorien. Is it possible the elven rope was made by Galadriel using her elven Ring of Power. Galadriel was able to see into hearts and create her “Mirror” with Nenya, the Ring of Water so it seems like the rope could’ve been made by her. (Sam even guessed out loud after escaping from Emyn Muil that Galadriel herself might’ve made the rope.)

Considering the above actions of all three characters as “torture” is, in my opinion, “splitting hairs” however you all are obviously free to disagree with me.

I'm very much interested to hear your thoughts on this.

Chip / g-stormcrow

Bruce Charlton said...

@g-s - these are good arguments. But...

My point is that in the modern public arena then these acts would very likely be *portrayed* as torture (especially if, for example performed by the US military on prisoners of war) - for example, a US interrogator approaching and holding a red hot iron near a prisoner while claiming to be about to use it; or 'taming' a prisoner with starvation and thirst, or leaving a prisoner in painful restraints until he has promised something.

Now, all of these situations would certainly be portrayed as 'torture' by the Leftist media (i.e. by the mainstream media) - especially if political capital could be made from doing so.

ctdonath said...

Of course they would, and do, portray it as "torture". They view us as an enemy who must be demonized at every opportunity. Witness any number of words said which are fine frm them but intolerable from us. Witness Ted Neugent being investigated by the Secret Service for "if Obama is reelected I'll either be dead or in jail", but the NBPP leader calling for actual violence and murders is deemed cute and spontaneous. Nothing you do is, to them, not wrong.

Anonymous said...

Totally agree with your point regarding the Leftist media outlets. Unfortunately, we also get the same kind of "treatment" by the Conservative media outlets, like FOX & MSNBC, as well. WMD's in Iraq and bank / major corp. bailouts in a capitalist society are given nods of approval. Confusion and double standards seem to be both's "weapons of choice".

It's hard not to question just about everything we see or hear that is "portrayed" by the media.

Bruce Charlton said...

@gc - the 'conservative media' ARE the Leftist media (-moderate wing).

This blog is written from a Christian Reactionary perspective, that regards *all* mainstream public discourse as solidly Leftist/ Liberal in their net effect (hence hostile to The Good - meaning hostile to truth, beauty and virtue; meaning in favour of dishonesty, ugliness and moral inversion).

Anonymous said...

Forgive me, bgc.

I was directed to this blogpost by another and made the idiotic mistake of assuming that that author's intentional link to it was the opposite of your (now obvious) viewpoint. I admit that I am new to "blogging" and will definitely read the entirity of a blog before commenting in the future.

To clarify my meaning of the "Leftist" media above, I was referring to the Democratic-leaning "side" of the media "discussion". Right now I can only think of Bill Maher (yeah, not really a newsman) because I semi-regretfully don't pay very much attention to the news media anymore for all of the reasons you've given above.

Wurmbrand said...

Troels, my belated thanks to you for the reference to (page 224 of) Morgoth's Ring, for why Sauron is the "Necromancer." Had I recollected your comment, I could have saved myself some errors about the origin of Orcs in a recent discussion.