On the Nature of Evil: Comparing the Villains of Spenser and Tolkien

Despite the wide range of worlds occupied by different fantasy series, a universal theme of the genre is the presence of evil forces working in opposition to a band of heroes. Most often the band of heroes is embarking on a quest to vanquish evil and naturally said evil forces are trying to stop them. No different are the fantasy works of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene and J.R.R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Both sagas feature villainous sorcerers operating in direct opposition to the heroes: Spenser’s Archimago, an old sorcerer, and Tolkien’s Saruman, the onetime head of the Wizarding Council. But despite this parallel, the two authors create characters who drastically differ in methods and motivation, revealing the fundamental difference in how Spenser and Tolkien view the nature and influence of evil. For Spenser, evil is the absence of righteousness and a rejection of religious obedience, whereas Tolkien views evil as the corrupting influence of power and selfishness which originates from within. Examining how the authors write their villains and understanding the context in which they wrote provides evidence for their respective interpretations on the nature of evil.

Archimago is one of the principal villains in Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. He is a master of deception and disguises, relying on his magic to seduce others away from the straight and narrow path by manipulating emotions and reason. The allure of his brand of evil is to forsake Godliness and religious obedience, instead giving in to indulgence. We meet him in the first canto, at which point he immediately starts causing trouble for the band of heroes, consisting of Redcrosse the knight, Una the Lady, and a dwarf. The resulting trickery exemplifies Archimago’s character and methods.

First, he attempts to disturb the integrity of the trio by tempting the chastity of Redcrosse with a lusty dream from Morpheus, God of dreams, and a sprite-imitation of Una:

“Who all this while with charmes and hidden artes, Had made a Lady of that other Spright, And fram’d of liquid ayre her tender partes So lively and so like in all mens sight, That weaker sence it could have ravish quight: The maker selfe for all his wondrous witt, Was nigh beguiled with so goodly sight: Her all in white he clad, and over it Cast a black stole, most like to seem for Una fit.” (Canto 1, p19-20)

This Una-imitation will go on to try and tempt Redcrosse to sleep with her, thereby dishonoring his chastity. Note that Archimago does not rely on convincing arguments for his purposes, but instead relies on “charmes and hidden artes” i.e. his magic. Granted, the imitation-Una tries to talk Redcrosse into fornication, but since she is a conjured façade, we can argue that she is merely an extension of Archimago’s magic. This is a prime example of Archimago using his magic to manipulate existing feelings in his targets, such as the lustiness he has instilled in Redcrosse via Morpheus’s dream.

It is also interesting to note that Archimago targets chastity with his deception. Chastity was one the most valued rules in the Christian practice in Spenser’s time period, providing evidence that Spenser believed evil to mainly be rooted in disobedience to God’s law. However, Redcrosse proves to be too staunch in his obedience to the chivalrous knight’s order and the law of chastity. In his next showing of deception, Archimago manipulates Redcrosse’s strict obedience to divide the heroic trio by taking the imitation-Una and another sprite disguised as a young squire and placing them “in a secrete bed, Covered with darkenes and misdeeming night, Them both together laid, to joy in vaine delight” (Canto 2, p.24). This time the ruse is successful and Redcrosse abandons Una in anger. Again, Archimago did not need to use persuasive arguments, but instead relied on his magic to accomplish is evil objectives.

Archimago’s methods are in stark contrast to those employed by Saruman, as seen in the latter’s attempt to persuade Gandalf to join him. Gandalf has ridden to Saruman’s home, Isengard, in search for answers and wisdom to the rumors of the nine ring-wraiths and what to do with the Ring of Power. However, it soon becomes apparent that Saruman has abandoned the good side in favor of the rising evil forces and is intent on Gandalf joining him.

The resulting encounter is remarkably more tamed than in Peter Jackson’s film adaption, where there is a great battle of magical strength involving mighty staffs and spinning wizards. Instead, the written scene does not involve any use of magic, such as Archimago might use, but rather a speech by Saruman. He opts to persuade Gandalf with an intellectual argument: “The time of the Elves is over, but our time is at hand: the world of Men, which we must rule. But we must have power, power to order all things as we will, for that good which only the Wise can see” (p.259). The power Saruman is referring to is the might of Sauron in Mordor. Sauron represents absolute evil, but Saruman is more interesting in that his brand of evil is more seductive and subtle.

Saruman’s speech to Gandalf boils down to the classic argument that the ends justify the means:

“the Wise, such as you and I, may with patience come at last to direct its courses, to control it. We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order; all the things that we have so far striven in vain to accomplish, hindered rather than helped by our weak or idle friends. There need not be, there would not be, any real change in our designs, only in our means” (p.259).

He proposes that by riding the coattails of Sauron, a far easier strategy than fighting Sauron, they can eventually control his power and achieve an ultimate purpose of knowledge, rule, and order. This seductive argument for gaining power is repeated later in the series, first by Galadriel and then by Boromir when he attempts to take the Ring from Frodo. It can even be found in other series outside of the Lord of the Rings universe, as in Star Wars when Darth Vader attempts to persuade Luke to join him in overthrowing the Sith Lord to rule over the galaxy or also in the Harry Potter series, when Grindelwald tries to persuade a young Dumbledore into setting up a Magician’s empire over muggles.

In all cases, the approach is to appeal to the intellectual side to rationalize evil deeds. As Saruman tells Gandalf, “We may join with that Power. It would be wise, Gandalf” (p.259). This brand of evil does not deceive with magical illusion, like Archimago’s methods, but rather through rationalizing the pursuit of power for a greater good. By tapping into the natural selfish desire for power, evil can cause even those who initially stand for good to be misled into darker paths. Tolkien portrays a far more sinister version evil that is able to harness inner desires in other wise good characters to accomplish nefarious purposes. This seduction of power is far more nuanced and imitative of real life than Archimago’s magical deceptive methods.

This difference in Archimago and Saruman’s methods can be traced back to the motivational factors for each of the sorcerers. Combing through the first four cantos of The Faerie Queene does not reveal any immediate motivator for Archimago’s trickery. When the heroic trio happen upon his abode, he seems to merely delight in meddling with their affairs by going to extreme ends, such as sending sprites to Morpheus and going through the trouble of conjuring up fake Una’s. Spenser does not provide us with any backstory to Archimago nor is there a rehearsed speech as in Saruman’s case to clue readers in to his objectives.

Looking at the results of Archimago’s trickery, one could infer that he desires Una for himself. This would explain why he is so intent on driving Redcrosse away from Una. Further support for this can be found when Archimago disguises himself as Redcrosse to trick Una into thinking she has been reunited with her companion: “But now seemed best, the person to put on Of that good knight, his late beguiled guest…And when he sate upon his courser free, Saint George himselfe ye would have deemed him to be” (Canto 1, p.26). Choosing Redcrosse as his disguise must have been a deliberate choice, so perhaps Archimago harbored some jealousy against the knight when he beheld Una. This choice would have been reinforced when Una was almost overly ecstatic to have found Redcrosse supposedly.

While this explanation might be plausible, a stronger argument can be made that Archimago as a character is far more symbolic in nature than the dynamic player that is Saruman. Archimago seems to serve more as a generic tempter’s snare rather than a nuanced villain. His trickery with Redcrosse indicates that his main goal is to get the hero to fall by the wayside in sin. This supports Spenser’s interpretation of the nature of evil as a rejection of righteousness and its allure as mainly temptation for indulgence, which in this case is the breaking of the law of chastity.

Understanding the context in which Spenser wrote The Faerie Queene provides us with further insight into Archimago’s symbolism and purpose in the text. Spenser wrote this series in the late sixteenth century, after the Protestant Reformation had swept through England. The smattering of not-so-thinly-veiled references to the Catholic Church throughout the first few cantos indicate one of the main purposes of at least the first book, which is to criticize Catholicism and praise the virtues of Protestantism. When we are first introduced to Archimago, he is described as wearing “long blacke weedes” and on “his belt his booke he hanging had” and “all the way he prayed as he went, And often knockt his brest, as one that did repent” (Canto 1, p.14). As seen in the footnotes, these descriptions are attributes of a Roman Catholic clerical. It is also interesting to note that Una is a modification of the latin word “unus,” which means unity and truth while the red cross that Redcrosse is name for is a symbol of the Anglican church. With this in mind, one could interpret Archimago as Catholicism trying to separate truth from the Anglican church. This provides another take on Spenser’s view on evil as being the absence of truth or Godliness.

While Archimago is more of a static character of a symbolic nature, Saruman’s motivations are more easily defined. He selfishly desires power for himself, which he tries to disguise as concern for the common good and as something he would share: “Why not? The Ruling Ring? If we could command that, then the Power would pass to us.” But, as Gandalf replies, “only one hand at a time can wield the One, and you know that well, so do not trouble to say we!” (p.260) The main motivator of Saruman’s sort of evil is to gain power, an end for which all deeds can be rationalized.

This gives readers a sense of Tolkien’s interpretation of the nature of evil. Saruman was once the head of the wizarding council and proponent of good, fighting off Sauron many a time. Tolkien uses Saruman’s betrayal to show that evil does not simply exist as an Other, but rather has roots even in the best of us. It preys on the selfish desires for power that inhabit all people and parades under the pretense of righteous control to rationalize evil deeds. This is the very nature of the Ring of Power; it feeds on existing selfishness and paranoia within characters, blooming into monstrosity. It helps to remember that Tolkien published The Lord of the Rings in 1955, when the memory of World War II’s atrocities was still fresh in public memory. The ease with which ordinary citizens condoned and even committed heinous crimes against humanity must have had a significant influence on Tolkien in his treatment of evil in this series, especially having fought in World War I and lived through World War II. To Tolkien, evil was not a shadowy figure foreign to man, but rather a shadow that continually exists within.

The portrayal of Saruman and Archimago reflect the interpretations of the nature of evil by Tolkien and Spenser, respectively. Spenser seems to support a black-and-white version of good versus evil, in that there isn’t a persuasive argument to be made for evil. Instead magic and deception are required to get heroes to turn away from good. Additionally, since Archimago lacks convincing motivation for his evil deeds (besides just wanting to watch the world burn), this supports the interpretation that Spenser views evil as a force whose mere existence is motivation enough for its nefarious actions. On the other hand, Tolkien views evil as a force that comes from within people and is allowed to nourish when characters prioritize selfish desires over everything else. This interpretation is found in the corruptive manner the desire for power – as embodied by the Ring – has on Bilbo, Frodo, Galadriel, Boromir, and especially Saruman. Understanding how Spenser and Tolkien view evil not only enriches readings of the respective texts, but also allows readers to heed the parallels and warnings the authors wish to impart for their own world.

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