Aesthetic Symbology in The Lord of the Rings
(written for “J.R.R. Tolkien: Middle Earth, Middle Ages”, a grad-school class on the work and inspiration of J.R.R. Tolkien)
Tolkien’s fiction has legions of fans, but there are also many people who disapprove of it for various reasons. In these detractors’ opinion, Tolkien’s work has serious flaws, either in concept or in execution, which seriously diminish its value. One of the many common criticisms leveled against Tolkien’s books — The Lord of the Rings in particular — is that Tolkien equates outer beauty with inner goodness in the world he creates. This equating of external appearance with internal worth shows that Tolkien viewed the world prejudicially, some say, and encourages his readers to do the same; others simply complain that it will confuse readers, especially young ones, into thinking that only beautiful people are good. Both of these problems would be serious ones, and Tolkien’s work deserves a close examination to ascertain if this claim is valid.
Critics who claim this about Tolkien’s work use examples such as the Elves and the Orcs to support their point. Elves are beautiful — tall, graceful, majestic, lovely — and they are good. Orcs are ugly — twisted, hideous, disgusting — and they are evil. Lothlorien and Rivendell are gorgeous places; Mordor is sickeningly ugly. In Tolkien’s simplistic view of the world, say these critics, the reader can safely assume that everything beautiful is good and everything ugly is evil — which is very different indeed from reality, in which the distinction between good and evil is never so simple.
Firstly, in defense of Tolkien’s portrayal of good and evil as outwardly manifest, a word can be said concerning the mythological nature of his story. In traditional myth and legend, beauty and ugliness are often seen as symbolic, and Tolkien uses them in a similar way at times in The Lord of the Rings. Shelob is ugly because she is, like Ungoliant before her, a sort of symbol of primal evil. This is not, of course, the way that good and evil truly appear in our world, but it is a nearly universal cultural tradition — the Greek goddesses were beautiful too. Also, it is not usually true in Tolkien’s world that something is evil because it is ugly. Mordor is not evil because it is ugly, it is ugly because it is evil — Sauron’s evildoing has harmed the very land and turned it foul. This is also a symbolic rendering, in that evildoing does not always produce visible ugliness in the real world, but it is true that evil twists things and in the end ruins them. Mordor’s ugliness is an outward sign of inner corruption.
However, although at times Tolkien does use beauty and ugliness symbolically to indicate good and evil, I do not believe that these critics’ disapproval is actually valid. Tolkien does not in fact consistently equate outer beauty with inner goodness at all. As a most basic example, the Ring itself is beautiful. “The gold looked very fair and pure, and Frodo thought how rich and beautiful was its colour, how perfect was its roundness. It was an admirable thing and altogether precious” (The Lord of the Rings, pg. 59). The beauty of the Ring is certainly deceptive, to put it lightly — its outer beauty does not indicate inner goodness in the least! The Ring is arguably the central antagonist of the book, and the fact that it is outwardly beautiful is a strong indicator that Tolkien did not simply equate appearance with essence.
In addition, though, there are other significant points in which appearance and actuality are not the same, or in fact quite opposite. When the hobbits meet up with Aragorn in Bree, he is not physically attractive. His outer appearance belies his actual quality — he ‘looks foul and feels fair’, as Sam thinks (LotR pg. 168). The Wild Men who help Théoden and the Rohirrim in Book V Chapter V are ugly. Even Gandalf, one of the Maiar incarnate, appears simply as an old man with “a long white beard and bushy eyebrows” (LotR pg. 24).
The hobbits themselves are also an example of beings whose appearance does not necessarily represent their inner worth. Hobbits are unlikely heroes — unlike the Elves, they are not particularly beautiful, being short and stocky, with hairy feet! They certainly don’t look noble or commanding or awe-inspiring in the least — on the contrary, their appearance (as described by Tolkien) is more comic than anything else. However, the hobbits of The Lord of the Rings prove their worth — both their courage and their moral fortitude — in spite of their appearance. Tolkien shows here that in his world, inner goodness does not necessitate outer beauty.
When one investigates Tolkien’s other Middle-Earth writings, aside from The Lord of the Rings, the issue becomes even more complicated. In The Silmarillion, for instance, we learn that the Elves, in spite of being all beautiful, are not likewise invariably good. Fëanor is described as “tall, and fair of face, and masterful, his eyes piercingly bright and his hair raven-dark (The Silmarillion, pg. 64) — certainly outwardly beautiful. But his character is much more complex and difficult to classify than is his outer appearance — he hates Melkor, but because of his faults of character he ends up doing many evil things. His outer beauty may represent his potential here, but it does not represent inner perfection.
In addition, we learn in Appendix A of The Lord of the Rings that Sauron himself once could appear beautiful; it was only after the fall of Númenor that “he was unable ever again to assume a form that seemed fair to men but became black and hideous” (LotR pg. 1013). Sauron was in fact fair enough to deceive the men of Númenor for many long years.
Obviously, then, in Tolkien’s fiction, outer beauty and inner goodness — and outer ugliness and inner depravity — are not equated. Although, because of the mythological structure of the world which Tolkien has created, outer appearance is at times used to symbolize inner state, this mythological characteristic is by no means overused in the work, and a deeper investigation of this criticism shows that it is not, in the end, valid.