Power and Authority in Milton and Tolkein

The High Fantasy track welcomed a full house of members Friday evening to Marriot L401-403, to spend an hour exploring the relationship between the works of John Milton and J.R. R. Tolkien. Jim Wert and Constance G.J. Wagner worked through the similarities between Milton’s Paradise Lost and Tolkien’s Silmarillion with a particular emphasis on the comparison between Satan and Melkor. Wagner launched the panel by recommending the work of Zach Watkins for those interested in a deeper analysis of the relationship. Tolkien fans know that his work was influenced by a wide variety of forces, including Northern European myth, Germanic languages, the experience of war, and Christianity. As a student at King Edwards, and then Oxford he would have been thoroughly familiar with the works of England’s great seventeenth century epic writer, John Milton. This intellectual and creative mix manifested itself through a lifetime of work. In the case of the Silmarillion, the work spanned his adult life and was not complete when he died. Wagner and Wert sought to help the audience get at the similarities and links between Milton and Tolkien’s Silmarillion.

Much of the discussion came back to Satan’s declaration in Milton that “it is better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven.” While Tolkien never puts those words into the mouth of Melkor, he does embody the same kind of self-centered focus. Both are angelic creations who’ve become warped and twisted. Working out this corruption and mutation of beauty is universal to high fantasy because what’s really being explored is the quest to answer the question of evil. How do we deal with evil? How do we explain evil? In Milton, and Tolkien, this evil is rooted in the twisting of original good. Both authors work with progressive solutions in which the end result is not simply to fix the corruption but lead to something new.

As the panel continued to discuss the many points of commonality between the two authors and their characters, the issue of repentance and redemption came to the fore. Milton’s Satan is not interested. He has chosen to leave, and tells Beelzebub that he will remain in hell and realize his desire to corrupt God’s creation (Adam and Eve) through agents. Melkor feigned repentance only to eventually reject Iluvatar and seek to corrupt his creation, the Elves. Like Satan, Melkor isn’t really capable of repentance. Neither is Sauron. But what about Gollum? Here, Wert takes the audience into the Lord of the Rings. On the stairs of Cirith Ungol, Gollum comes back to a sleeping Frodo. Tolkien describes Gollum in that moment as looking very much like an old, broken, sad Hobbit reaching out in love to his master. Sam, startled awake, verbally attacks Gollum. In that moment the possibility of Gollum’s redemption passes.

In the final analysis, however, the panel came back to Satan’s declaration in Milton and the quest that both he and Melkor were on: the quest for power and the inevitable corruption that follows from it. The old adage about the relationship between the two is universal. Milton and Tolkien each addressed it for one fundamental reason: we are all humans, and regardless of place or time, we strive to find answers to who we are, where we’re going, and why evil occurs.

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