Tuesday, July 28, 2020

The Importance of Evil

I think I agree about the ‘creation by evil’. But you are more free with the word ‘creation’ than I am. Treebeard does not say that the Dark Lord ‘created’ Trolls and Orcs. He says he ‘made’ them in counterfeit of certain creatures pre-existing. There is, to me, a wide gulf between the two statements, so wide that Treebeard’s statement could (in my world) have possibly been true. It is not true actually of the Orcs – who are fundamentally a race of ‘rational incarnate’ creatures, though horribly corrupted, if no more so than many Men to be met today. — J.R.R. Tolkien Letter No. 153
Implied in this quote about orcs is a cultural critique of modern man divorced from God. The “rational incarnate” creature is one that has replaced God with reason, and having done so has rid the world of Good and Evil. Fundamentally, this is why I have a real problem with WotC and its new approach to orcs.

Evil, like cold, is an absence of something. In the case of cold, it is an absence of heat. In the case of evil, it is the absence of good. In a Biblical context, God is the source of all goodness, because Christ Himself tells us:
“Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” —Mark 10:18 
Thus, when humanity elevates rationality to the point that it thinks God is no longer necessary, a biblical critique would argue that the society built on that foundation is evil. From a practical point of view, good and evil cease to make any sense.

To go back to the heat/cold analogy, imagine that we have lived our entire lives near the arctic circle and have never seen a world without ice and snow. In such circumstances, it is impossible to describe what it might be like to live in the Sahara, because we have never experienced that kind of dry heat in our lives. In the same way, if we live a life without good, we have no reference with which to understand evil.

The consequence of such a world-view is catastrophic on many levels. The first half of the 20th century saw the rise of what Tolkien might call rational incarnate societies. They murdered others and their own in the tens of millions. Absence any concept of good, rationality justified mass murder. The level I am concerned with today, however, is in the realm of stories…specifically about how we construct them in context of an RPG.

The most universal and archetypal stories that have cultural significance and last through the ages are those that at some level pit good versus evil. In my lifetime, Star Wars played with these archetypes brilliantly. Homer, Beowulf, Gilgamesh, the Bhagavad Gita, King Arthur, Shakespeare, etc. all meditate on Good versus Evil. Good yarns have good characters who have complex and interesting motivations inspired by the classic conflict of good and evil.

In context of RPGs, especially classic versions of D&D, character motivation becomes a central feature of the game. Every player has to wrestle with why their character does what they do. Every player has to wrestle with what has the most value. This is particularly true when XP isn’t exclusively given for combat. In older versions of the game where 1xp=1gp, and a goblin was worth 5 xp, getting the 500gp treasure guarded by the goblins became an exercise in weighing values. In campaigns where 1xp=1gp spent, gaining a level became an exercise of literally putting your money where your mouth is, and then living with the consequences.

In this context, orcs are the personification of the absence of good. Whether physical manifestations of sin, spawn of the fallen world, or a humanity that has turned its back on God, orcs allow us to have a reference point for what is good. Without them, every character is an orc. They may look like a human, gnome, or elf, but without the reference point of evil, everyone may as well be an orc.

In a world where everything is an orc, good stories become impossible. Archetypes disappear, because the only character motivation left is selfishness. Without evil, why do anything? When selfishness is the motivation for everyone, everything become normative. Killing millions becomes rational.

Telling stories and playing RPGs become boring and pointless.

So, for me, having a world where orcs are evil is essential for not only understanding the game, but being able to actually play it.

15 comments:

  1. Just wanted to say, I really look forward to your posts. Combining Christian teachings with RPGs is something I'd never have even considered, but it works soo well.

    Best wishes.

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  2. I find that irredeemably evil sentient races to be uninteresting. A one note wonder when played out over decades of multiple campaigns set in the same setting.

    Instead I made Orcs tragic, they are what they are because of the fallen in my setting, the demons. Orcs are capable of choosing good over evil however because of how demons manipulated their bodies and psyche orcs as a group have a harder time. And doesn't change the fact that neighboring cultures find it near impossible to deal with orcs as a group.

    It does't come up often during actual play, but in my notes one of the greatest philosophical questions is how to deal with the co-existence of myriad races that were created by the demons. Not just orcs, but traditionally friendly races like dwarves, and halflings.

    Like Tolkien the only race that was co-created with humanity were the elves. The rest were made from humanity by demons using magic. Many altered in their psyche as well as bodies.


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    1. When did I ever say "irredeemably" evil? I use a biblical definition of good: God. Nothing is impossible for God. Indeed, one of the most interesting parts of virtually every campaign is when payers decide to talk instead of pull a sword. Orcs, goblins, toadmen, trolls, and even a dragon have all played significant roles as henchmen, NPCs, and even PCs. Again, the point here is to have evil as a reference point to know what is good and heroic. Sometimes, that means saving the orc and not killing it.

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  3. While what you say is true, I think you might be misunderstanding what Tolkien was getting at in that quote. Maybe the context makes it clearer, but Tolkien uses the phrase "rational incarnate", while what you're describing might be more accurately described as "rationality incarnate". And he seems to be using it as a contrast to things the Dark Lord could have made.

    I think Tolkien might have meant a "rational [incarnate creature], that is to say an incarnate creature which is capable of rational thought, as opposed to a lesser animal. In Tolkien's world, it's made clear that Eru (God) is the only being capable creating such a being from nothing. Even the Valar are unable to do so - on one occasion one of the Valar tried, but was only able to make automatons. (Then Eru intervened and gave them actual life and that's where the dwarves came from, but I digress). On the other hand, the Valar are quite capable of making "lesser" animals without direct help from Eru.

    I think Tolkien is saying that while the Dark Lord might have lost the power to come up with truly new things, he's still able to make imitations and counterfeits of things that others have created. He could have made a race of non-sentient puppets which seemed to act with intelligence while he was directing them, but otherwise acted on instinct alone. That might actually be true of trolls. As it happens, it's not true of the orcs of Tolkien's world - which are capable of independent thought and therefore must be corruptions of something that Eru created.

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    1. Nothing you say here seems to contradict what I think he was trying to say. While God is the only being that can create from nothing, humanity is created according to His image and likeness. Therefore, we can create from what is given to us. When used in concert with God, it allows us to be co-creators with God (see Adam naming the animals, for example). When used to turn humanity away from God, this creative power is, indeed, counterfeit. I see a very strong parallel between orcs and the various beings that populate Tolkien's world that "create" orcs and various ideologies that specifically try to rid the world of the Christian God. A quick look at history reveals a pile of bodies that numbers in the tens of millions.

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    2. You say 'The “rational incarnate” creature is one that has replaced God with reason'. I think - and I could be wrong, of course - that Tolkien's definition of "rational incarnate" creatures included (unfallen) men, elves, dwarves, etc. I think he was just meaning "incarnate creatures which are capable of rationality", not "creatures that elevate rationality to the place of a god". And in Tolkien's universe, only Eru can create such beings.

      If the orcs are "rational incarnate" beings like the elves, humans, etc, it follows that the Dark Lord must have actually taken some other beings (elves, possibly, based on other things Tolkien said) and corrupted them into orcs, rather than just making the orcs from scratch and imitating the design of the other races. I think that's what Tolkien is getting at. So while your statements about the orcs of Tolkien's world are true, I don't think they're actually related to what Tolkien was talking about in that letter. Of course, I might be wrong, or I might have misunderstood you.

      I'm also not sure that there's a parallel between the orcs and societies that try to replace God with *reason* specifically. Of course, the orcs are clearly trying to replace God with something else. And doing that is always wrong, whatever it is you're trying to replace God with. But in the orcs' case, it's not reason they're trying to substitute, it's the Dark Lord Morgoth [Satan], who is totally evil and should be opposed in every way. Whereas reason is actually a good thing, provided you don't try to replace God with it. So it seems to me that if you wanted to draw a specific parallel with real life, the idolatory in the Old Testament fits more closely than modern day ideologies that try to replace God, evil as those ideologies are.

      Incidentally, since I think this is my first time posting, I'd also like to say thanks for writing this blog. I've been reading it on and off for a while now, and as another Christian who plays D&D you've given me quite a few good ideas.

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    3. Thanks for the kind words and encouragement.

      First, I would point out that elevating reason above God *IS* idol worship. Second, Morgoth, Sauron, etc. while being overtly satanic, also embody the very human desire to take control of their own existence — a temptation made much greater when we have technologies that allow us to do amazing things. Finally, orcs are presented as technological beings...as far as technology is a thing in Middle-Earth. They cut down trees in order to set up and fuel their weapon and armor assembly lines, etc. It seems to me that orcs do worship at the idol of reason, embodied by the various satanic figures that they follow. If one were to model early twentieth century regimes in fantasy terms, Modor is a good place to start.

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    4. Hmm. Yes, elevating reason (or anything else) above God is idol worship, in the broader (and more important) sense that it's placing something else as being more important than God, and thus is sinful. But in the prosaic, literal sense, people making an "idol" out of reason aren't consciously serving and obeying a powerful evil being which has set itself up in opposition to God. On the other hand, the idolatory we see in the Old Testament is exactly that - the Israelites were actively, intentionally worshipping beings which set themselves up in opposition to God. (Or at least they thought they were, I'm not trying to get into a discussion about whether pagan religions actually have power). I suppose that it's just an example of the way things happening physically in the OT which reflect spiritual things in the NT. Since fantasy also tends to turn spiritual ideas into physical ones, it makes sense that things would often correspond more directly to OT events.

      Anyway, while Morgoth (and later Sauron) might have started out "worshipping" reason, I think by the time of the stories they've moved to worshipping power. As you say, they're embodying the desire to take control of our own existence. That's particularly obvious with Sauron, who seems to have allied with Morgoth because he wanted to bring order to the world, but then decayed into just trying to conquer it.

      And that's also the big temptation we see in the Lord of the Rings: the temptation to sieze Sauron's power, embodied in the Ring, and use it for your own ends. And from what we see of the orcs, Sauron seems to keep them in line by threat of punishment. And the relations between orcs seem to be based on power too.

      The technological aspect fits with this pursuit of power as much as with the pursuit of reason. Arguably more so, since the aspects of technology we see are all about gaining power over God's creation rather than gaining benefits from the technology.

      Contrast how Sauron acts in the second age, urging the elves and Numenorians to let him teach them skills and knowledge. There, I think, he really is driving their societies closer to the worship of reason. And I'd say that the latter days of Numenor are a better, although more obscure, model of early twentieth century regimes, what with the persecution of minorities among their own citizens, and rejection or distortion of their ancestors' traditions honouring God. And, of course their attempts to break the laws of nature God had set up, by trying to use their fleets to invade Valinor and conquer death.

      Perhaps I'm also a bit biased, though - I'm a mathematician, so reason is rather important to me and I may be inclined to blame other things! On that same basis, there's also a clear distinction in my mind between the pursuit of reason itself (e.g. in mathematics, or the sciences), and the way people use the results of that reason (e.g. cutting down forests to fuel assembly lines). To me, it's entirely...well, reasonable...to use reason for its own sake to discover things, with any actual uses of your discoveries being optional byproducts. So to me, a society which honours reason only for its practical benefits isn't really worshipping reason at all, just acting sensibly in the pursuit of whatever it *is* worshipping.

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    5. Reason and technology when used in context of a relationship with God is a very good thing. Along with a lot of prayer, they helped saved the life of my youngest. When we get rid of God, however, the only organizing principle left is power. Therefore, when we elevate reason over God, tyranny is inevitable because that is logical end of the unfettered pursuit of power. As Psalm 1 says:

      Blessed is the man who has not walked in the counsel of the ungodly, and has not stood in the way of sinners, and has not sat in the seat of evil men.

      "Seat" here is political power and is sometimes translated as the "seat of pestilence" because power corrupts.

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  4. Professor Tolkien changed his opinions on his mythic history through the years. I think he had two different views on Orcs and Trolls through the years:

    One was that they were 'thoughtless animatronics' made by the Dark Lord in mockery of those beings created by Eru. These "made beings" actions and limited will were an 'echo' or subliminal level of Morgoth's conscience. They were not true beings with Free Will. Much like the Dwarves were before Eru breathed live in them (only more so, as Morgoth was more powerful than Aule).

    Tolkien also at a point thought and wrote that orcs were utterly corrupted Elves and/or Men. So corrupted in body and spirit that they were all-but irredeemable.

    The Hobbit and LotR don't support the 'made creature' much, except for at the end of the War of the Ring, when after Sauron is destroyed, the Orcs and Trolls essentially loose their will and many even throw themselves into the river.

    Often, the Orcs in both stories seem to have ambitions and goals of their own - always evil goals, but goals nonetheless. The orcs do not seem to be 'created automatons' only serving Sauron's will (although it seems they must when he wills it). They seem to be fallen/corrupted/near-irredeemable BEINGS.

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    1. I have long taken the "twisted" version of Tolkien's understanding of orcs and have applied to most humanoids. My default understanding is that gnolls, hobgoblins, and orcs are all twisted elves and gnomes, goblins, and kobolds are twisted dwarves. I do not, however, hold to Tolkien's view of irredeemable evil. In my view, though these creatures are twisted, they have some amount of free will. Thus, they can choose to reject evil. The problem (as it exists in most of my campaigns) is that the culture and/or ideology of humanoids is utterly evil.

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    2. I'm not sure that Tolkien agreed with "Tolkien's view of irredeemable evil" either! There's evidence that suggests he viewed it as a slightly awkward necessity for the genre (to give the heroes a kind of monster to cut their way through without moral repercussions) but wasn't really comfortable with the implications of Morgoth corrupting elves/humans beyond the possibility of redemption since that didn't fit well with his understanding of God and salvation.

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