I remember reading something in Tolkien's writings that perfectly summarized his response to the Problem of Evil (in the context of his imagined world, anyway): if God (or Eru) is perfectly good, why does he allow evil (Melkor) to exist in his creation?

Tolkien's response was, paraphrasing (obviously; if I could quote him directly I wouldn't be asking), that the existence of suffering makes the story of the world more poignant and beautiful than it would otherwise have been.

What is this quote, and where does it appear? It's been bothering me for ages, and I've referenced it a few times in answers without being able to remember what the exact words were (or where to find them).

Note that I am looking for a specific quote, which (hopefully) I'll know when I see it. Any quotes from Tolkien addressing Theodicy in Middle-earth are welcome, but I'm only giving the tick to the one I'm looking for.

To save you some time, here's a few I'm confident aren't the one I want:

And it seemed at last that there were two musics progressing at one time before the seat of Ilúvatar, and they were utterly at variance. The one was deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came. The other had now achieved a unity of its own; but it was loud, and vain, and endlessly repeated; and it had little harmony, but rather a clamorous unison as of many trumpets braying upon a few notes. And it essayed to drown the other music by the violence of its voice, but it seemed that its most triumphant notes were taken by the other and woven into its own solemn pattern.

The Silmarillion I Ainulindalë

Then Ilúvatar spoke, and he said: 'Mighty are the Ainur, and mightiest among them is Melkor; but that he may know, and all the Ainur, that I am Ilúvatar, those things that ye have sung, I will show them forth, that ye may see what ye have done. 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 hath not imagined.'

The Silmarillion I Ainulindalë

  • Do you remember the context? Was it in-universe, from the narrator and/or a character? Was it in one of his later exploratory essays? Was it a CT commentary? Was it out-of-universe, something like "I put it in evil stuff because it makes for a good story"? – isanae Aug 5 '17 at 7:38
  • @isanae My gut says it was either Manwe, Eru, or Mandos, speaking in-universe, but I'm not 100% certain of that – Jason Baker Aug 8 '17 at 17:45

In the The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Tolkien actually expresses in multiple instances that for the world of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit he does not believe in the 'absolutes' of either evil or good.

Specifically, he doesn't believe in absolute evil (letter 183 to W.H. Auden):

In my story I do not deal in Absolute Evil. I do not think there is such a thing, since that is Zero. I do not think that at any rate any 'rational being' is wholly evil. Satan fell. In my myth Morgoth fell before Creation of the physical world. In my story Sauron represents as near an approach to the wholly evil will as is possible. He had gone the way of all tyrants: beginning well, at least on the level that while desiring to order all things according to his own wisdom he still at first considered the (economic) well-being of other inhabitants of the Earth. But he went further than human tyrants in pride and the lust for domination, being in origin an immortal (angelic) spirit.

and he doesn't believe in absolute good, either (letter 154 to Naomi Mitchison):

Some reviewers have called the whole thing simple-minded, just a plain fight between Good and Evil, with all the good just good, and the bad just bad.

...

[Besides], in this 'mythology' all the 'angelic' powers concerned with this world were capable of many degrees of error and failing, between the absolute Satanic rebellion and evil of Morgoth and his satellite Sauron, and the fainéance of some of the other higher powers or 'gods'. The 'wizards' were not exempt. Indeed, being incarnate, they were more likely to stray, or err. Gandalf alone fully passes the tests, on a moral plane anyway (he makes mistakes of judgement). Since in the view of this tale and mythology, Power, when it dominates or seeks to dominate other wills and minds (except by the assent of their reason) is evil, these 'wizards' were incarnated in the life-forms of Middle-earth, and so suffered the pains both of mind and body.

And as to the 'why', he pens this to C.S. Lewis (also documented in the same book as letter 113) where he expresses his own personal opinion about what it means to suffer:

It is one of the mysteries of pain that it is, for the sufferer, an opportunity for good, a path of ascent however hard. But it remains an ‘evil’, and it must dismay any conscience to have caused it carelessly, or in excess, let alone wilfully.

  • 1
    I'm not sure how the letter 154 quote proves that he doesn't believe in absolute good - only that all the created beings in this world weren't absolutely good. – Matt Gutting Jan 6 '16 at 14:13
  • Interesting, but not what I'm after; I should perhaps have made it more clear that what I was looking for was related to Tolkien's fictional world, not necessarily his real-life opinions – Jason Baker Jan 6 '16 at 17:06
  • @MattGutting - And that was actually the whole point (unless I misunderstood your statement which I might have); Tolkien didn't believe in absolute good or bad as applied to his LOTR and The Hobbit world and so used his characters and their actions and reactions to demonstrate accordingly. – Aith Jan 7 '16 at 10:13
  • @JasonBaker - Whoops! I guess I ought to have asked. I've actually been in the middle of re-reading The Silmarillion (ought to finish by tomorrow if not later tonight). If I happen to find a Silmarillion-specific quote (or another quote specific to his created world) which might answer your question, how ought I share it with you? – Aith Jan 7 '16 at 10:17
  • So is it by virtue of 'fundamentally religious' that Tolkien believes in the concept of absolute good and evil as applied to his world or does he actually state somewhere (like in a Letter) that he believes in absolutes in his world when in reality, there are several letters in the Letters book which go to lengths to describe how un-absolute his characters are and how important this is? In Letter 154, he's indignant about people boiling down his story to simplistic 'good versus evil' terms which is why he goes to lengths to explain how non-absolute his characters are. – Aith Jan 7 '16 at 12:05

Might it be this one?

But at that last word of Fëanor: that at the least the Noldor should do deeds to live in song for ever, he raised his head, as one that hears a voice far off, and he said: ‘So shall it be! Dear-bought those songs shall be accounted, and yet shall be well-bought. For the price could be no other. Thus even as Eru spoke to us shall beauty not before conceived be brought into Eä, and evil yet be good to have been.’

But Mandos said: 'And yet remain evil. To me shall Fëanor come soon.’

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, "Of the Sun and Moon and the Hiding of Valinor"

  • Could you edit to explain why you think it might be this one? – TheLethalCarrot Sep 19 at 10:55
  • I've also edited to use quote markdown and added what I believe the source the quote is from. If this is incorrect feel free to edit and correct it. – TheLethalCarrot Sep 19 at 10:56

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