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Evil cannot create anything new, they can only corrupt and ruin what good forces have invented or made.

I see this quote a lot in the comments under the new Amazon The Rings of Power teaser trailer.

When and in what context did Tolkien say this?

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    Probably right before closing time in the Eagle and Child, yelling at Lewis about Narnia again. Feb 14 at 16:36
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    That's some intense trolling done by supposed "fans", inferring that the creation of this show is somehow "evil". rolls eyes
    – JaredH
    Feb 15 at 20:58
  • Related reddit discussion: reddit.com/r/tolkienfans/comments/ss8vfu/…
    – jamesdlin
    Feb 16 at 12:14
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    I'm quite sure both that Tolkien believed evil could not create anything new and that he never said "… they can only corrupt and ruin what good forces have invented or made". I find it obvious he would rather have said "… It can only corrupt and ruin what (G)ood has made" and even that would be dubious. Feb 16 at 22:40

3 Answers 3

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It doesn't appear to be anything that Tolkien ever said or wrote, but a paraphrase:

"No, they eat and drink, Sam. The Shadow that bred them can only mock, it cannot make: not real new things of its own. I don't think it gave life to the orcs, it only ruined them and twisted them; and if they are to live at all, they have to live like other living creatures."

-- The Return of The King

For the Orcs had life and multiplied after the manner of the Children of Ilúvatar; and naught that had life of its own, nor the semblance of life, could ever Melkor make since his rebellion in the Ainulindalë before the Beginning: so say the wise.

-- The Silmarillion

In fact, it appears to de a direct quote from TV Tropes:

A defining metaphysical law in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. Evil cannot create anything new, they can only corrupt and ruin what good forces have invented or made.

-- Evil Is Sterile, tvtropes.org (edit history)

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    You can also find similar sayings in the writings of CS Lewis, especially The Screwtape Letters. Lewis and Tolkien influenced each other significantly Feb 14 at 15:45
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    from the Silmarillion I seem to recall a passage where Aule the Smith fashioned the dwarves, yet the dwarves had no independent life of their own until Iluvatar intervened. Going out on a limb, my interpretation was that none of the valar could create life regardless of whether they were good or bad that is neither Manwe nor Melkor, only Iluvatar had the ability to create living things. Iluvatar only granted the dwarves life because Aule had created them with no arrogance or malice in his heart, he had only wished for craftsmen to teach valuable skills. Feb 14 at 21:45
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    @Adam.at.Epsilon Right, it's at the beginning of Chapter 2: Of Aulë And Yavanna Feb 14 at 23:15
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    @Adam.at.Epsilon I thought they had life, just not fëar (souls). Certainly the Ents and Eagles were not given fëar by Eru, but are still meaningfully alive and not mere automata
    – Tristan
    Feb 15 at 9:22
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    The point of Aule and the Dwarves is that he creates them, and they have "life" in the sense of being animated, but they have no free will - they do only an exactly what Aule commands. Iluvatar gives them true life, which is illustrated by them shrinking from the destruction Aule is about to bring to them. If they hadn't had free will (independence, whatever) then they would have just stood there while Aule kills them. Feb 15 at 14:43
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Peter Hastings, manager of the Newman Bookshop (a Catholic bookshop in Oxford), wrote expressing enthusiasm for The Lord of the Rings, but asked if Tolkien had not 'over-stepped the mark in metaphysical matters'. He gave several examples: first, 'Treebeard's statement that the Dark Lord created the Trolls and the Orcs'. Hastings suggested that evil was incapable of creating anything, and argued that even if it could create, its creatures 'could not have a tendency to good, even a very small one'; whereas, he argued, one of the Trolls in The Hobbit, William, does have a feeling of pity for Bilbo.

-- The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, No. 153

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    Hi, welcome to the site. While this is an interesting side note though, it doesn't answer the actual question of when (or if) Tolkien himself made that statement, and in what context (if he did). Anything posted in the 'Your Answer' field should focus on answering the question. If you just want to post a related comment, you need to earn a bit more reputation to unlock the comment everywhere privilege. Please take the tour and visit the help center center to learn more. Feb 15 at 15:40
  • Can you explain more about the troll feeling pity for Bilbo?
    – releseabe
    Feb 16 at 2:07
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    I've found a copy. Hasting's letter is not there. This answer is a direct quote from the book.
    – OrangeDog
    Feb 16 at 12:55
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The context of the idea that evil cannot create, but instead only ruin that which good has made comes from the Silmarillion. One of the things which Morgoth desired most feverishly was to create something of his own, whether a people or an entire land. He could not, however, which drove him to capture and corrupt a group of elves, who became the orcs. That is what's originally written, though I understand that Tolkien might have backtracked a bit after doing some thinking on that idea. Personally I'm a fan of it, as it also proves a marked difference between Morgoth and Aulë; Morgoth simply couldn't make new creatures at all, while Aulë could, but had to focus on them completely in order for them to be animated, until Eru Iluvatar breathed true life into them. This can all be read in the earlier chapters of the Silmarillion, possibly depending on the version.

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