The Function of Beauty in Middle-Earth


The recent trailers for the game Middle-Earth: Shadow of War, produced by Monolith Productions, have sparked a rash of my friends prodding at me with the news of the new appearance it gives to Shelob: one of a beautiful woman. They know me as something of a Tolkien purist (though I hope not as one of the snot-nosed type, those who believe any deviation should be rejected simply because it is deviation), and they know these games are a hot-button topic for me.

In short: I am not a fan.

But rather than simply keeping a rant prepared for the next time it's brought up, I thought I would try to do something constructive. The reason I dislike the changes made to Shelob have nothing to do with the fact that it doesn't come from Tolkien's own writing, but rather that it breaks a pattern in the history of Middle-Earth and destroys a theme which, I believe, is critical to understanding not just Tolkien's narrative but much of what he put of himself into his work.

Inherent Beauty & The Ugliness of Evil

There is a theme in the background of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, one which is often referenced or seen obliquely, but which only comes to the fore in The Silmarillion: that certain beings—normally those on the side of "good," to momentarily allow for a gross oversimplification—are inherently beautiful, while those beings they oppose are not. This is a common trope in works of fiction, and is particularly abundant in the fantasy genre.

Sometimes this is leveled as a criticism of Tolkien's work. This sort of writing can make for a convenient, if ill-disguised, crutch for writers who otherwise cannot properly convey the nature of their characters to the reader. It is much easier to trust that the reader will naturally cheer on the "beautiful people" and wish for the downfall of everyone who is ugly, deformed, or otherwise lacking in appearance (this is also a common crutch in Hollywood films). Secondly, Tolkien is criticized for his use of this trope because time and again it seems the white people are beautiful and therefore good, and those who are not are ugly (or at least, not beautiful) and therefore evil.

While the second criticism is important, it is beyond the scope of this particular essay. But the first criticism, of it being a crutch by which moral good is reflected in natural beauty, is not. This criticism shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the theme Tolkien weaves not just in the history of Middle-Earth, but into the very metaphysical workings of his legendarium.

The Silmarillion opens with Eru Iluvatar and the creation of the Ainur, semi-divine beings who eventually come to aid Eru in the creation of Middle-Earth. Though in the beginning there is no sight but only hearing — creation is achieved through making music, with each Ainu being given a part of the larger theme — when sight is granted the Ainur are immediately described as being fair: "Thus it came to pass that of the Ainur some abode still with Iluvatar beyond the confines of the World; but others, and among them many of the greatest and most fair, took the leave of Iluvatar and descended into it."1 This physical description is then expanded upon for the Valar, those Ainur who descend into the world, in which they "walked on Earth as powers visible, clad in the raiment of the World, and were lovely and glorious to see."2 This beauty is both physical and divine, for though they "are not at all times like to the shapes of the kings and queens of the Children of Iluvatar [Elves, Dwarves, and Men]; for at times they may clothe themselves in their own thought, made visible in forms of majesty and dread."3 Immediately upon encountering these divine beings in the world, we are shown that they may walk in the shapes of mortals but are themselves not bound by this, and are always majestic, lovely, glorious, and perhaps even dreadful to behold. These beings, it seems, are by their very nature beautiful.

But not all of them. There is one Ainu who descended into Middle-Earth but is not counted amongst the Valar, and he is not beautiful. When Melkor enters the world he sees the beauty of his peers and so assumes a somewhat different appearance: "His envy grew then the greater within him, and he also took visible form, but because of his mood and the malice that burned in him that form was dark and terrible. And he descended upon Arda in power and majesty greater than any other of the Valar."4 Being an Ainu he still possesses great power and even majesty, but never once in all of Tolkien's work is he described as beautiful or fair.

If all the Ainur save Melkor only are beautiful, then their fair appearance cannot be an inherent trait. There must be a difference between Melkor and his fellows which causes the deviation, a quality which either he alone possesses, or he alone lacks. In this case the answer is obvious: Melkor is, from the very start, the only Ainu envious enough to try to turn the works of Iluvatar to his own ends. Where the Valar act for the most part selflessly (even Aule's rebellion against Iluvatar in making the dwarves was performed not out of selfishness, but out of love) and always with the will of Iluvatar in mind, Melkor alone attempts to serve his own ends. It is not that the Ainur are beautiful because that is their nature, but because there is an echo of Iluvatar in them, and particularly with Varda: "Too great is her beauty to be declared in the words of Men or of Elves, for the light of Iluvatar lives still in her face."5 Melkor, being the only Ainu who does not willingly serve Iluvatar's design, does not shine with the light of his creator. It is his conceit, the way his thoughts turn ever inwards, which rob him of beauty. In Tolkien's works, "good and evil are portrayed through contrasting images of beauty and desolation or transcendence and horror. He carries this over to the light of one's being."6 Put another way: an ugly mind, in Tolkien's world, makes for an ugly countenance.

This idea of one's appearance being rooted in one's thoughts is not exclusive to the Ainur. From the beginning the elves, the First Children of Iluvatar, are described as beautiful creatures in their own right, though not in the same manner as the Valar. In fact, when the Valar first come upon them they are "filled moreover with the love of the beauty of the Elves."7 This can be seen even into the Third Age of the world, when Frodo sees Glorfindel for the first time: "To Frodo it appeared that a white light was shining through the form and raiment of the rider, as if through a thin veil."8 This is an echo of the descriptions given to the Valar themselves, in which their physical appearance is described as "but a veil upon their beauty and their power."9 It is this beauty which first draws the Valar to the Elves, and instills in them a desire to protect them against Melkor and the hurts of the world. And in a setting where one's inward thoughts are plainly written on one's face, this is a wise decision: in such a place one would need only to look at another's face to see if they harbored ill will.

Even negative emotions do not necessarily tarnish one's appearance, but only things such as envy or greed, for "though the beauty of the Quendi in the days of their youth was beyond all other beauty that Iluvatar has caused to be, it has not perished, but lives in the West, and sorrow and wisdom have enriched it."10 Though the elves experience a great deal of sorrow, this does not lessen their beauty but only increase it. The lack of beauty is given only to beings whose thoughts are turned wholly inward, such as Melkor ("a dark Lord, tall and terrible"11) and Ungoliant, whose appearance, already monstrous, "swelled to a shape so vast and hideous that Melkor was afraid"12 as she gorged herself upon the light of the two trees. It is not negativity that creates ugliness, but self-centered thought and deed.

Corruption of Beauty

Nowadays Tolkien is used as the sort of ur-example of the "epic fantasy" genre, which is characterized by, among other things, a clear delineation between the forces of good and the forces of evil, and the fullness of both sides; that is, what is good is wholly good and what is evil is wholly evil. This is a mistake. While The Lord of the Rings inspired much of the epic fantasy genre — much of the fantasy genre overall, in fact — it could not be further from the truth that good and evil are so clearly defined in his works.

Setting aside the many beautiful, righteous, sometimes good people who do terrible things (Feanor, Galadriel) and the less-than-attractive people who help the heroes of the story (Treebeard, Ghan-buri-Ghan), there is something else to consider: every single being who might be called evil became such as a result of a choice. Sometimes the choice was not their own, or at least not entirely, but behind every evil creature in Tolkien's legendarium is a history, and that history is inevitably one of a fall from grace.

Melkor is the most obvious example, being the chief of the Ainur in power but falling into envy and pride, and it from Melkor's fall stems many, many others. Among them are an unknown number of Maiar, "those spirits who first adhered to him in the days of his splendour, and became most like him in his corruption; their hearts were of fire, but they were cloaked in darkness."13 Sauron is counted among these spirits, as are (depending on one's interpretation — another topic for another day) Ungoliant and the Balrogs. And here again the text demonstrates that there is a connection between one's inner thoughts and one's outer appearance, for the corrupted Maiar are "cloaked in darkness," a shroud which obscures the light of Iluvatar which should be shining through them all.

Hand in hand with the corruption of one's thoughts, Tolkien illustrates a corruption of one's appearance, of their very being. Perhaps the most heinous example of this in all of Tolkien's works is the origin of the orcs: "All those of the Quendi who came into the hands of Melkor, ere Utumno was broken, were put there in prison, and by slow arts of cruelty were corrupted and enslaved; and thus did Melkor breed the hideous race of the Orcs in envy and mockery of the Elves."14 Here there is no indication of the nature of these new beings, only their "hideous" appearance, but their evil is clearly shown in all they later do. In Tolkien's world, things at the beginning were beautiful and peopled were good, and it is only through selfishness that the evil, ugly things have come about.

In Middle-Earth, foulness does not come from nothing. The natural state of the world, and of all beings in it, is one of beauty. Mention is made several times to the many nameless and unlisted horrors Melkor has unleashed upon the world, but always in a way to suggest that Melkor is merely taking what already exists and turning it to his own purposes; creation is beyond him. We see instead "the evil things that he had perverted."15

Lisa Coutras, in her work Tolkien's Theology of Beauty, says "while Tolkien believed that good was ultimately greater than evil, he did not discount the power of evil to undermine and disfigure the good."16 It is important to remember that here to "undermine" and to "disfigure" are, in Middle-Earth, not two entirely separate actions but rather a cause and an effect; when Melkor corrupts and enslaves beings to his will he turns their thoughts inwards, and in doing so they lose their beauty and became disfigured. We see this in almost every mention of the monsters "of divers shapes and kinds"17 created, directly or indirectly, by Melkor's corrupting influence.

Nor is this corruption something which can be resisted. Gandalf puts it most plainly when speaking of the corrupting influence of the ring, which itself is an echo of Melkor by way of his lieutenant Sauron: "Yes, sooner or later — later, if he is strong or well-meaning to begin with, but neither strength nor good purpose will last — sooner or later the Dark Power will devour him."18 Sauron, Saruman, and countless other Maiar are proof that even some of the mightiest, wisest, and most cunning beings in Middle-Earth are not immune. The orcs show that the elves too may fall, and though the ringwraiths (with their "merciless eyes" and "haggard hands")19 offer a glimpse, it is the description of the Mouth of Sauron which provides the most disturbing image of the fall of man: "a tall and evil shape. and its face was a frightful mask, more like a skull than a living head, and in the sockets of its eyes and in its nostrils there burned a flame. yet this was no Ringwraith but a living man."20

But there is perhaps no better example of corruption than Gollum. The corruption of his body is complete, whatever fair (or at least hobbit-ish) features he may once have possessed now gone and replaced by a shape constantly referred to as disgusting, horrifying, or at least pitiable. He is first introduced as "old Gollum, a small slimy creature. as dark as darkness, except for two big round pale eyes in his thin face."21 Even his movements are described in dreadful ways, such as when he first draws near to Frodo and Sam, climbing down a rock face "like some large prowling thing of insect-kind."22 Frodo is one of the few characters across all four books who shows Gollum even a modicum of kindness, and this is only because of some wise words from Gandalf on the subject of mercy. But what is more interesting about Gollum is not the way his physical appearance has been altered, but how his mind has gone with it. The disparity between his two personalities, Smeagol and Gollum, demonstrate just how much the corrupting influence of the ring (which, again, is but an echo of Melkor's own influence) can have. And even more tragically, the ways in which the Smeagol personality has degraded and fallen into selfishness (culminating in it being perverted by the desire for the ring, even if it means the death of his "master") shows that even that disparity does not encompass the fullness of his fall. Gollum was perverted by the ring and made to turn inwards in his thoughts, caring only for himself and his precious. And as went his mind, so too his body. He may once have been fair, but by the time of The Hobbit he is wholly disfigured. Despite mercy, despite second chances, his evil is written plain in his appearance and he proves it in his final moments at the Cracks of Doom.

Sauron the Fair

So far there has been one notable exception to much of what this essay puts forward, and little comment of this omission has been made. That exception is Sauron, one of the most powerful of Melkor's lieutenants and the ultimate subversion of the theme of unity between thought and appearance. But in this case, the undermining of the theme is central to understanding it, and Sauron being such a central character in Tolkien's works (he is, after all, the Lord of the Rings) proves how important the function of beauty is in the legendarium.

Before his fall in the drowning of Numenor Sauron was not merely another of the Maiar fallen to Melkor, but a shapeshifter. It is primarily this ability which gained him his notoriety and power, becoming "the greatest and most trusted of the servants of the Enemy, and the most perilous, for he could assume many forms, and for long if he willed he could still appear noble and beautiful, so as to deceive all but the most wary."23

Sauron is apparently unique in his skill at shape-changing. Though the Ainur who came to Middle-Earth were all capable of changing their appearance to some extent (as has been previously discussed), there are none who are shown to be so proficient, utilitarian, or quick with their abilities as Sauron. The Tale of Beren and Luthien makes for a wonderful example of his prowess as a shape-changer. He first demonstrates his power when he encounters Huan, the great hound of Valinor:

"Therefore he took upon himself the form of a werewolf. So great was the horror of his approach that Huan leaped aside. Then Sauron sprang upon Luthien; and she swooned before the menace of the fell spirit in his eyes and the foul vapour of his breath. Then Sauron shifted shape, from wolf to serpent, and from monster to his own accustomed form."24

His ability to cow even Huan notwithstanding, Sauron shows that his skill does not lie only in taking on dread shapes but also in how quickly he does it. Later in the same passage, when Sauron is defeated, Luthien says "that he should be stripped of his raiment of flesh." Though this term is never again brought up or expanded upon, it still makes for an interesting aside because it is the only time one of the Ainu is referred to as having flesh. Though it can be assumed that they do (especially Melkor, who is wounded in battle and suffers other injuries) the phrasing behind their physical forms is normally couched in different language. Sauron is, from the start, presented as a more earthly, physical presence than many of his kin.

But the pinnacle of Sauron's skill as a shapeshifter is his ability to again take on a noble appearance, despite having fallen to Melkor's influence. Though his thoughts are no less selfish or wicked than the other corrupted Maiar, Sauron alone is able to hide the foul appearance they share and still walk in the sort of shape he must have had when he was yet a servant of Aule. There is no indication anywhere in Tolkien's works that any other being could do such a thing, and as already indicated, this made him "the greatest and most trusted of the servants of the Enemy, and the most perilous." This skill even allowed him to elude the Valar "when Thangorodrim was broken and Morgoth overthrown, [for] Sauron put on his fair hue again."25

Many of Sauron's most heinous crimes were committed in a fair shape, and even after he lost this ability, the works he had achieved while he had it laid the groundwork for all his later acts. The first of these was when he manipulated the Elves into creating the "network" of rings of power in a bid to control their users with the One. This manipulation he achieved easily, for "he went among them, and his hue was still that of one both fair and wise. [and] the Elves received him gladly."26 In the trusting nature of the Elves, we see how Sauron is not merely an exception to the theme of beauty in Middle-Earth, but a subversion designed to work alongside it. Robert Foster, in The Complete Guide to Middle-Earth, summarizes Sauron's dealings with the First Children with little explanation: "Under the name Annatar and wearing a fair body, he seduced many groups of Elves."27 So why are the Elves so willing to accept this stranger, with a strange name (Annatar means Lord of Gifts28), who seems to want to help them without any thought for payment? The answer is simple: because of the theme of beauty Tolkien has built into every other facet of Middle-Earth. The Elves trust him because he is fair, because they know that one's outer appearance is a mirror of one's inner thoughts. They would not have welcomed Annatar if he had come to them in a form of dread, or as a tyrant. But because he looked like someone with noble intentions, they thought he did.

And the Elves are not alone in this thinking. Even after Sauron is revealed for the would-be tyrant he is and flees the lands of the Elves, his ploy is still not without merit. After his discovery he is no longer able to fool the Elves (and, in fairness, he was not able to fool all the Elves even from the first; Gil-Galad, notably, was always suspicious) he puts his tricks away for a time, but they still serve him well once more. When the Numenorean kings send for Sauron, who at that time is their opponent and enemy, he comes willingly to their shores, and again he assumes a noble shape: "a mask he could still wear so that if he wished he might deceive the eyes of Men, seeming to them wise and fair."29 And just as with the Elves, there are some among the Numenoreans who are still suspicious, or who are even able to see through the trick: "and it seemed to men that Sauron was great, though they feared the light of his eyes. To many he appeared fair, to others terrible, but to some evil."30 But those who are not deceived are apparently too few to stop Sauron from ingratiating himself with the line of Numenorean kings, turning them over generations from the worship of the Valar to the worship of Melkor, and ultimately leading to their downfall.

Sauron is the center around which the theme of beauty turns. The fact that he is the only one capable of subverting it shows how important and (otherwise) all-encompassing it is, and the effects of that subversion shows how powerful it is within Tolkien's works as a whole. Though Melkor will always be the greater evil, both because he was first and because his corruption came entirely from within, Sauron is the darker menace. After all, Melkor's evil is at least an honest one, a dark lord who can be seen from miles away. Sauron is a subtler character, an influence which spreads over years in black thoughts and moments of weakness, dressed up in excuses and noble garb. Where Melkor is the cartoon devil, brandishing his red horns and pronged trident while he cackles in the far-off pit, Sauron is the devil on the shoulder, invisible to all but so much closer, and so tempting to listen to. Sauron is the darkness in every heart. Sauron is familiar to us all.

Though the theme of beauty is rarely discussed in regards to Tolkien's work, I believe it is one of the most important. Identifying it and analyzing it tells us a great deal about the author himself. It shows how knowledgeable he was in regards to folklore and mythology, where the idea that one's appearance matched one's moral character is often shown as a simple, universal truth. It shows how skilled he was as a writer, to be able to take an unspoken theme and not only demonstrate it for us but also subvert it. And it shows us something of the man as well, the Christian who saw evil not only in the form of Lucifer falling to earth, but also in the willingness of people to be seduced by the wolf in sheep's clothing, the false prophet who will tell you whatever you want to hear to get you to listen to what they have to say next.

It is this, more than anything else, that makes me detest the new direction taken with Shelob in the upcoming game. I am willing to see Tolkien's works elaborated upon and expanded. I would love to see more contributions to Middle-Earth's legendarium, in fact. But not when it goes against the spirit of the original stories. Not when it tramples on such a crucial piece of the puzzle, and all for no benefit but drawing in the sorts of people who would buy a videogame just to see a scantily-clad woman.

Seducing others with a fair form is Sauron's trick, and Monolith Productions should leave it to the dark lord.

1. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, 2nd ed. (New York: Del Rey, 2002), 9-10.
2. Ibid., 11.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid., 16.
6. Lisa Coutras, Tolkien's Theology of Beauty: Majesty, Splendor, and Trascendence in Middle-Earth, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 256.
7. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, 49.
8. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, 50th anniversary ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004), 209.
9. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, 21.
10. Ibid., 46.
11. Ibid., 78.
12. Ibid., 81.
13. Ibid., 43.
14. Ibid., 47.
15. Ibid., 43.
16. Coutras, 256.
17. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, 44.
18. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, 47.
19. Ibid., 195.
20. Ibid., 888.
21. J.R.R. Tokien, The Hobbit, 50th anniversary ed. (New York: Ballantine Books, 1989), 71.
22. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, 613.
23. Tolkien, The Silmarilliono, 341.
24. Ibid., 206.
25. Ibid., 341.
26. Ibid., 343.
27. Robert Foster, The Complete Guide to Middle-Earth (New York: Del Rey, 2001), 436.
28. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Appendix B.
29. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, 346.
30. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lost Road and Other Writings, The History of Middle-Earth, Vol. 5. (New York: Del Rey, 1996), 74.




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