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Another excerpt, The Making of the Fellowship by Tom Simon

The Making of the Fellowship: Concepts of the Good in The Lord of the Rings

by Tom Simon

In my story I do not deal in Absolute Evil. I do not think there is such a thing, since that is Zero.
—The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, no. 183

Evil is its own best propaganda, especially in fiction. Few people can entirely resist its fascination: many a hero has been upstaged in the popular imagination by his opposing villain. Milton’s Satan is a more interesting figure than Milton’s God, and Darth Vader is far more popular than Luke Skywalker. J. R. R. Tolkien actually made his villain the title character of The Lord of the Rings, but wisely chose not to portray him directly in the story. Sauron is always off stage, mysterious and menacing; in his absence, the One Ring becomes the focus of evil. The Ring, and the evil for which it stands, have an unwholesome glamour that draws the attention of nearly every reader and critic. In J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, possibly the definitive work in the field of “Tolkien Studies,” Tom Shippey devotes a 51-page chapter to “concepts of evil” in The Lord of the Rings. I know of no comparable inquiry into Tolkien’s concepts of good. These tend to be mocked (by hostile critics), or passed over in silence, or at best taken for granted.
To the philosopher, this lacuna presents both a symptom and an opportunity. Ethics is not primarily the study of evil; it is the attempt to define and understand the Good, and evil is defined merely by its opposition to that. We know that Sauron is Evil with a capital E; but what is the good to which he is opposed? What did the “speaking peoples” of that place, as Tolkien calls them, consider worth doing, and what, by their standards (and their author’s), made for a life well lived?
All of the major “speaking peoples” were represented in the Fellowship of the Ring: Men, Elves, Dwarves, and Hobbits. Let us begin, as Tolkien does, with the hobbits. Hobbits are anachronistic in Middle-earth, and deliberately so; they have clocks and umbrellas, tea-parties and tobacco, as befits an idealized and sanitized version of the rural English among whom Tolkien spent his formative years.
The Prologue, “Concerning Hobbits,” and the opening chapters give us more than enough information to go on with. The Shire, which Tolkien describes as a “half republic half aristocracy” in the letter quoted above,

[They] had hardly any ‘government’. Families for the most part managed their own affairs. Growing food and eating it occupied most of their time. In other matters they were, as a rule, generous and not greedy, but contented and moderate, so that estates, farms, workshops, and small trades tended to remain unchanged for generations.…
They attributed to the king of old all their essential laws; and usually they kept the laws of free will, because they were The Rules (as they said), both ancient and just.

As Frodo observes, “No hobbit has ever killed another on purpose in the Shire.” The few swords in the Shire had not exactly been bent into ploughshares, but they were preserved as mathoms, keepsakes or museum pieces, not for use.
Clearly we are looking at an idealization; which at any rate makes it easier to identify the ideal. This is preindustrial Western man, not as he ever actually was, but as he aspired to be; and sometimes the aspiration was nearly fulfilled. In the peaceful and sheltered society of pre-1914 England, the habit of violence was easy to avoid. Moral softness acted in concert with the Christian moral code, which persisted long after the decline of the churches. The society of the Shire takes this tendency to the point of caricature. All kinds of serious crime, not just murder, were virtually unknown: we are told that the principal duty of the Shirriffs was chasing down stray livestock. It is a utopian society, but utopian in a peculiarly English vein: hedonistic without addiction to pleasure, liberal without the selfishness that is the frequent vice of liberty. Hobbits were governed not by laws and magistrates, let alone police and soldiers, but by their own deeply ingrained sense of the fitness of things – their moral sentiments. Adam Smith would have approved, though probably with a knowing smile at the author’s thumb on the scales.
But it is not enough to be hedonistic and liberal. Pleasure and freedom do not maintain themselves without effort. In the life we know, that means both the moral effort of following “The Rules,” and the physical effort of defending one’s society against enemies who do not share these values. We find both in the Shire. A number of hobbits desert “the Rules” at the first serious temptation, and enlist as bullying Shirriffs under the rule of Saruman, in his guise as “Sharkey.” Robin Smallburrow describes the process:

‘There’s hundreds of Shirriffs all told, and they want more, with all these new rules. Most of them are in it against their will, but not all. Even in the Shire there are some as like minding other folk’s business and talking big. And there’s worse than that: there’s a few as do spy-work for the Chief and his Men.’

Minding other folk’s business: the cardinal sin of the liberal Utopia. In Tolkien’s youth, one of the worst insults one Englishman could offer another was “Nosey Parker.” But every liberal society is vulnerable to Nosey Parkers, as the history of the last hundred years has shown. When Lotho Sackville-Baggins made up his mind to take over the Shire, he was minding other folk’s business with a vengeance; but the other folk were not willing to mind his business by stopping him. Only when Sharkey’s rule became unendurable did the hobbits resolve to throw him and Lotho out; and they did so only with outside help. For the four hobbits of the Fellowship had been trained in a sterner school, and knew how to deal with Sharkey by sterner methods than name-calling and complaining.
Read the rest in Issue #2 from Amazon, Castalia House or Smash Words

Friday Excerpt – Beyond the Mist Chapter 1 by Ben Zwycky

I thought I would try something new, so on Fridays from now on I will be published excerpts from Sci Phi. For this inaugural one I thought I would post the first Chapter of our new Serial, Beyond the Mist by Ben Zwycky. If you enjoy this excert, check out the first three Chapters in Issue #2 and more to come!

Beyond the Mist by Ben Zwycky

Chapter 1 – The Mist

Am I falling or flying? I thought to myself as the endless mist rushed past my face, feeling the buffeting ripples up and down my skin but hearing almost nothing. How long has it been – hours? Days? Months? Is this all there is? I asked myself, unable to remember anything. And who am I?
A small plastic packet of water drifted past, travelling slightly faster than I was, and I caught hold of it. A tube of some sort of food followed shortly afterwards.
Where do these come from? I silently asked as I consumed them, then allowed the empty wrappings to float away.
There was a faint light up ahead and I began to deliberately drift towards it.
“Dive away! Dive away! Avoid them at all costs!” cried out a voice behind me, and I leaned away from it. “That is a ledge placed there by our cruel overlords. If you hit one of those, not only will it hurt you more than you can bear, but it will also rob you of your freedom. Seek refuge in the mist.”
“A ledge? But what are they for?” I asked, turning to see who was speaking, but could see no-one, only a disturbance in the mist that indicated something was there.
“The overlords seek to lure us to our doom with promises of ‘truth’ and ‘life’,” explained the voice, spitting out those two words with disgust. “Do not listen to them, they only seek to hurt and enslave you. Here there is life, here there is freedom! Here they cannot touch us.”
“Reach out for your life, find the truth and save yourself,” called a different voice from the light as it came rapidly closer.
“Don’t listen to him! Dive away! Dive away! Don’t let him reach you!” screamed the first voice as the light flashed past. “That was close, despicable creatures.”
“So you know them?”
“I know what they are,” replied the first voice, full of bitterness, “I have heard the stories, they speak of ‘truth’ and ‘light’, ‘right and wrong’, ‘responsibility and self-control’, it is nothing but lies to ensnare and enslave you. The mist is life, the mist is safety, here we fly! Here there is no failure or shame, duties or consequences, here we are kings!”
“How can there be lies if there is no truth?” called the second voice from a distance. I looked back to see a light approaching.
“It is one of them!” screamed the first voice, “Cover your ears, dive away! Dive away! You will not enslave us!”
The second voice spoke with an authoritative calm as it gained on them. “To lie is to knowingly deny the truth. How can there be lies without a truth to be denied?”
“Stay away from us!” shouted the first voice.
The light was getting much closer now and the second voice no longer needed to be raised. “Do you not have eyes that were made to see? A mind that was made to think? Legs to stand on solid ground? A soul to make a difference? The mist is not life, the mist is a prison.”
“A prison? Ha!” scoffed the first voice. “What do you know of freedom?”
The second voice seemed to grow in weight and vitality as it replied, “I know the freedom to stand and gaze at the beauty of creation, the freedom to love, the freedom to distinguish between right and wrong, the freedom to enjoy the fruits of my labour, know the satisfaction of a job well done and take the consequences of my actions, to find my context and live life to the full.”
“Here there is life, and to more than the full!” said the first voice. “The freedom to create whatever reality you desire!”
“Any such creations are purely in your imagination,” countered the second voice as the light came ever closer and split into two, revealing a human shape with lights attached to both shoulders. “You are merely playing in the mist, nothing real is produced.”
“But that’s the beauty of it!” enthused the first voice. “Total control, none of it lasts any longer than you desire it to – as soon as it no longer interests you, it is gone.”
“To be honest,” I said, “that sounds more like a disadvantage than a selling point.”
“Hmph,” snorted the first voice in disgust. “If you wish to enslave yourself to another man’s reality, then be my guest.”
It was then the second voice’s turn to take on a slightly disapproving tone. “While you play these childish games and entertain yourselves to death, there is a vast real world out there with beauty to discover, genuine adventures to be had and worthy struggles to take part in.”
“How would I leave the mist if I wanted to?” I asked.
“In less than two minutes, we will approach a bridge across the entire chasm. I will provide you with a parachute to land safely on it and then a lamp to help you find your way across, but this will be no easy journey.”
“After all the risks I took to help you,” accused the first voice, “all the ways I opened your eyes, you would willingly serve the overlords? Traitors like you make me sick, you are not worthy of my time.”
“Then begone,” said the second voice, “and let him make his choice.”
“If slavery awaits me, and I am not convinced it does, then I prefer that to this empty swirl of contradictions – the chance to find my place, touch something real and meaningful, it is worth the risk. Give me the parachute and lamp.”
The first voice gave out a disgusted sigh and quickly drifted away.
“Here you are,” announced the second voice, reaching out and grabbing my hand, looped something over my arm and reached round to loop it over the other, then guided my hands to two halves of a large metal clip. “Attach the large clip across your chest, and then there are two smaller ones to attach around your thighs.” I fumbled around with my hands until all three were snapped shut. “The lamp is attached to one of your shoulder straps, I am switching it on now.”
A bright white glow lit up the mist rushing around me and I could see some of my own form for the first time. I seemed to be an adult human, though I was still a lot less visible than the human shape opposite me.
“Next to your left breast is a handle that when pulled will release your parachute. That will slow you down abruptly, and then two handles will appear above you, one above each shoulder. Pull on the left one to turn left, and on the right one to turn right. Are you ready?”
“Yes, I have the handle.”
“Good. I will count from three and then you will pull. Three, two, one, pull!”
The straps around my thighs seemed to dig deep into my legs as the violent change in direction wrenched the air out of my lungs and tossed me around like a rag doll for a second or two, the flapping canopy lacerating the air around my ears. Gasping for breath, I looked up to see what looked like a network of glowing green veins in the mist a couple of metres above me, and two green ovals dancing just above my face. I grabbed at the ovals with each hand, assuming they were the handles I was told about, coughed and recovered my breath as the pain became bearable.
“Ow, that hurt.”
Once the canopy was stable, I had the bizarre feeling of my body now having weight, and the background noise I had perceived as almost nothing was glaring in its absence. I looked down and saw the green glow of the second voice’s canopy below me and to my left, with his two lights having now merged into one again with the distance.
“Now you are closer to flying than you have ever been in here. Practise turning left and right until you get the hang of it. Pulling both handles at once will swing you upwards and slow your forward speed, we will be doing that when we come in to land. Try it a little now to get the idea, but not too much or you may lose all forward speed and begin falling out of control.”
I tried several manoeuvres and began to grow in confidence.
“Look below us,” called the voice from the light, “you will see a large orange light approaching. That is where the bridge is at its widest, aim to land at that point.”
The mist made it difficult to judge how far I was from the orange light, which separated into a large glowing ring as I approached, and before I could judge how much to pull on both handles I hit the platform hard, pain shot up my left leg and I slid across the perforated metallic surface, finishing my slide clinging to a very low rail with half of my body hanging over the precipice. I lay there motionless, panting and groaning as the other man made a much more controlled touchdown.
“Let go, you fool!” called a voice falling past.
“Fly and be free!” called another.
“No more pain!” cried a third.
“Not the smoothest of landings,” said my parachute provider, now standing over me. “If you wish to fall, then simply let go. If you wish to stand, say so and I will help you up.”
“Help me, please, but my left leg, my ankle, it hurts.”
I felt a pair of strong hands pull me carefully back from the edge, then the illuminated human shape methodically examined the injured limb. “A mild sprain, nothing more. Some discomfort, but with a little strapping you should be perfectly mobile.”
I felt some sort of footwear and a layer of fabric removed from my injured joint, then the cool of some sort of gel or liquid being applied, then a length of elastic fabric wrapped tightly around the tender area and the footwear replaced. As this was being done, I caressed the perforated metal platform I sat on, so solid and regular.
“There, now try to stand.”
I made an attempt at standing, but fell back down before reaching a half-upright position.
“It may take some time for your sense of balance to adjust, and your muscles and bones may have lost some of their strength, depending on how long you have been here. With time and practise, that will all return,” explained the voice as he removed my parachute and hung the cylindrical light around my neck. I could see the glint of the metal floor for a few metres in every direction before the mist blurred all things into one. The parachute canopies were criss-crossed with rapidly fading fluorescent green lines, and the illuminated human appeared to be stuffing their billowing silks in turn into a hole in what I assumed was the centre of the platform.
After a brief buzzing, he retrieved each parachute as a small and compact bundle that he slotted back into its pack.
“They are now ready to reuse?”
“No, they are just compressed to make them easier to carry out of here, they will need to be refolded later.” He took both parachutes over his shoulders, pressed something on the floor that switched off the ring of lights and stood to leave.
“The way out of here is narrow, but straight. Some walk their way out, some crawl, others give up and fall back into the mist – that choice is yours – but if you do make it out, then I will meet you on the other side,” and with that he turned and walked away, his light and footsteps quickly fading to a vague background impression.
The mist seemed to close in on me, threatening to overwhelm my little white light as I sat there on the platform, alone and isolated. A distant voice screamed, “Dive away! Dive away!” as it fell past with a low rush of air.
I watched the discernible ripples in the mist from the falling body quickly fade to nothing, then attempted to stand again. After two more abortive efforts, I was finally able to rise and maintain my balance on two ponderous limbs. I stepped forward and back and from side to side to regain the feel of bipedal motion, and despite the polite protests from my left ankle, started to think that I could do this.
“Leave us alone, you monster!” shouted another voice as it fell past, and I sighed, looking down at the platform on which I stood and peering into the greyness in the direction the illuminated man had disappeared.
“I’ve made my choice,” I thought aloud, and began slowly walking forwards

To be Continued …