Compare and contrast the ways in which Tolkien and Wilde present the corruption of good in ‘Lord of the Rings’ (1968) and ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ (1890).Examine the view that everyday objects can become powerful entities.

Compare and contrast the ways in which Tolkien and Wilde present the corruption of good in ‘Lord of the Rings’ (1968) and ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ (1890).
Examine the view that everyday objects can become powerful entities.

The corruption of good in both J.R.R. Tolkien’s work ‘Lord of the Rings’ (1968) and Oscar Wilde’s novel ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ (1890) can be clearly seen due to specific powerful objects such as the One Ring and the Painting and the influence that they then have with its capabilities to corrupt all good into a more morally ambiguous state. However, there are also ways in which the corruption contrasts according to critics such as Tolkien and Wilde having extremely different views on morality due to the different genres such as Tolkien creating a world with a much more black-and-white morality due to the fantasy setting whereas Wilde changed the conventional morality of the time with themes such as homo-eroticism involved in his work.

In both texts, the corruption of good can first be seen with the introduction of the everyday object which in turn makes those objects powerful symbolically. From the characters’ perspective, both the ‘ring’ and the ‘painting’ are first represented as an art form with both Wilde and Tolkien using similar descriptive language whilst also creating a dark undertone foreshadowing an eventful transformation into the corruptive weapon they will become. In ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ (1890), the painting itself is described as having ‘extraordinary personal beauty’ (p5). This description is a surprisingly supernatural one (due to the use of the word ‘extraordinary’ defining it as exceptional and beyond what is ordinary) which gives said painting more of a complex depiction, and contrasts with the particularly simplistic clear-cut Victorian world described – with the wealthy West End and decrepit East End clearly showing two extremely different sides of morality in 19th Century London – therefore creating an abnormality which teases the seemingly demonic abilities that the painting will obtain after the Faustian pact agreed to by Dorian, making it become extremely powerful. The artist – Basil Hallward – is described when ‘a smile of pleasure passed across his face, and seemed to linger there. But he suddenly started up, and closing his eyes, placed his fingers upon the lids, as though he sought to imprison within his brain some curious dream from which he feared he might awake’ (p6). The use of the words ‘linger’ and ‘imprison’ both have negative connotations which Wilde uses to subtly begin presenting the first signs of corruption. This can be compared with the way Tolkien illustrates the ring in the first volume of ‘Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring’ (1954). At first, the ring is simply described as a ‘golden ring’ (p31) however the theme of corruption is apparent when readers see the ring’s effect on characters such as when Gandalf asked Bilbo Baggins to leave the ring behind ‘a curious change came over his voice. It was sharp with suspicion and annoyance’ (p33). This is then paralleled when Frodo tries to give the ring to Gandalf as it is described as feeling ‘suddenly very heavy as if either it or Frodo himself was in some way reluctant for Gandalf to touch it’ (p49). This reflects the ability of a simple object to ‘possess’ humans. Similarly, in ‘A Picture of Dorian Gray’, Hallward doesn’t wish to show the painting anywhere as he has ‘put too much of himself into it’ (p6). Arguably, the painting’s ability to ‘possess’ humans is can be shown at this early stage though Hallward who has an indulgence and desire to retain control and ownership over something that on the surface is simply only a painting. Although both objects are seemingly ordinary, they are described by the writers in such a way that they become extremely unique with the ability to entice people simply based on their appearance. This in turn elevates their importance in the texts. The focus on the physical appearance of both objects subconsciously promotes a conceited view of the items present in all the characters that come across them. This consequently brings into context questions about the morality of characters in both texts specifically the ‘Hobbits’ from ‘Lord of the Rings’ and those such as ‘Sybil Vane’ from ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, and how easily their soul is corrupted by the vanity and lust for said objects, considering that the objects are themselves not personified and it is through the characters first, that corruption is shown..

The idea of morality differs in both texts; in Professor Jared Lobdell’s collection of critical essays on Tolkien’s novels, he suggests that the author leans towards “the black-and-white morality of The Lord of the Rings”[1], whereas Wilde plays with the conventional morality of Victorian Britain with his work being critiqued as having “a distorted view” [2] of said morality. To Victorian readers, the novel was seen to have a “certain notoriety for being 'mawkish and nauseous', 'unclean', 'effeminate' and 'contaminating'." [3] These views stemmed from the homoeroticism particularly between Basil and Dorian seen in the initial publication, which offended the ‘sensibilities of Victorian book critics’. This prompted Wilde to revise his work which included the introduction of the Preface. Here, Wilde “addressed the criticisms and defended the reputation of his novel” [4] with reference to morality throughout the book stating “that a book can be neither moral nor immoral, and that morality itself serves only as "part of the subject matter" of art”[5]. These critical interpretations about morality are also seen in the ‘Lord of the Rings’ however Tolkien has been criticised for being “pretty clear-cut about who is bad (the Ringwraiths, the Balrog) and who is good (all those shiny elves)”[6]. Although later additions, such as with the theme of temptation have been praised for complicating this theme of good and evil with (Boromir’s temptation by the ring in ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ (1954) and Frodo’s internal struggle with the ring on Mount Doom in ‘The Return of the King’ (1955)) this initial interpretation has become famous for bringing what few critics consider to be “racial elements in the story, generally based upon their views of how Tolkien's imagery depicts good and evil, characters' race and that the character's race is seen as determining their behaviour” [7]. The notion that Tolkien’s work is an “'epic rooted in racism”[8] stems from ‘evidence of racist attitudes or events in the author's personal life’[9]. Both Wilde and Tolkien have been criticised for allowing their own experience and views to permeate the morality of their respective novels. This in turn alters the perception of corruption in their works where the ideology of even the most well-intentioned characters (Frodo Baggins, Sibyl Vane and Dorian Gray can transform) can be turned to the evil side due to everyone having a corruptible nature within them. This slightly corruptible nature of these characters also speaks towards the view that everyday objects can become powerful with them acting as a focus for the corruption completely shifting the morality of the novels and making the corruption grow like a fungus on the characters.

The theme of corruption is also expressed through the characters in the novels with it slowly changing the personality and even the character’s physical appearance. Despite the painting not making Dorian’s appearance age in real life, the painting itself does change not just with age, but also with corruption as the painting is described as having a different expression and that there was ‘a touch of cruelty in the mouth’ (p87) which occurred chronologically after the rejection that Dorian gave Sibyl Vane, wishing that he never sees her again thus breaking her heart and causing her to commit suicide. This suicide shows the corruption of good as Sibyl can be described as the solitary character in the novel that was truly innocent and pure then destroyed by an aristocratic seducer. This same theme of corruption is shown as an integral plot driving device in ‘Lord of The Rings’ which is primarily seen with the ring constantly corrupting whomever holds it or is in the general vicinity of it such as Boromir, shown specifically when he tries to take the ring from Frodo forcefully: ‘His fair and pleasant face was hideously changed; a raging fire was in his eyes’ (p399). The corruption of Boromir is also seen with the adjustment to his name with him now being labelled as ‘The Man’ (p399) which furthermore links to Tolkien’s general description of men having an easily tainted sense of morality; this theme is personified through the ‘Nazgul’ in the ‘Lord of the Rings’ as nine men who were corrupted by Sauron’s power, now bound to the power of the One Ring. Tom Shippey discusses this at length in his work of literary criticism titled J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century.

Shippey makes note of the characters that reject the ring such as both Aragorn and Faramir, fearing that it will create wicked desires within them. In contrast, the hobbit’s contentment and lack of ambition makes them less susceptible to the powerful entity that is the ring seen in both Frodo and Sam, both of whom are able to handle the ring for extended periods of time. Tolkien writes this explicitly to show a clear differentiation between the corruptible nature of men and their innocent nature of the hobbits[10]. This example shown in the ‘Lord of the Rings’ is also seen within ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ where Dorian and Sibyl are seen as parallels of this theme with Dorian being terribly flawed and although the victim of corruption himself, he is seen as a flawed narcissistic character which then makes Dorian value his beauty above everything that makes him corruptible with his desire to maintain his visage. Whereas Sibyl is wholly innocent and her naivety creates turmoil for her resulting in death that then creates a turning point for Dorian where he then begins a much more hedonistic lifestyle after reading a specific ‘yellow book’ that is actually a morally poisonous French novel[11] given to him by Lord Henry which Dorian then completely bases his life around – another everyday object which has powerful and lasting effects on characters of the novel. This idea, according to Shippey, is a contemporary view and very much a modern theme focused on Tolkien with him citing a famous statement in 1887 from Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men...”[12] According therefore to Shippey, Wilde’s focus on morality and his supposedly complex description of corruption shows a comparison to Tolkien’s work and that would therefore explain the critical reception of ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ when it was released due to its modernised take on morality.

Furthermore, in both novels, the entirely corrupted party can be seen returning to the items at multiple times showing the theme of corruption being expressed through said characters. In ‘Lord of the Rings’ the aforementioned ‘Nazgul’ constantly hunt for the ring due to their morbid obsession with it after becoming corrupted and the power it possesses. There is a comparison of this seen in ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ where Dorian, after locking up the painting due to Sibyl’s death, returns periodically to London to see the painting during the eighteen years that he spends away living a more debauched lifestyle showing again a comparison between the two novels with the presentation of corruption through characters and the view that everyday objects can become powerful entities.

Ultimately the everyday objects seen in both texts become extremely powerful entities and effectively weapons which destroy and completely corrupt the ‘good’ who then transform dramatically into an ‘evil’ state. This corruption is sustained throughout both novels with the Nazgul and Dorian both consistently returning to the supposed ‘everyday object’ that actually become extremely powerful due to the influence they have on others. This shows both Wilde and Tolkien presenting the corruption of good into evil as less of a black vs white morality wise, and more areas of grey in both texts creating corruption in a more complex sense.

[1]: Jared Lobdell ‘A Tolkien Compass’ p.4
[9]: Magoun, John (2007). "The South". In Michael Drout. J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia. p. 622.
[10]: Shippey, Tom (2002). J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. Mariner Books. Pp. 112–160
[11]: Oscar Wilde: Art and Morality (Illustrated Edition), ed. by Stuart Mason (Fairford: Echo Library, 2011), p. 63
[12]: Shippey, Tom (2002). J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. Mariner Books. p. 116.

[1] Jared Lobdell ‘A Tolkien Compass’ p.4
[9] Magoun, John (2007). "The South". In Michael Drout. J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia. p. 622.
[10] Shippey, Tom (2002). J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. Mariner Books. pp 112–160
[11] Oscar Wilde: Art and Morality (Illustrated Edition), ed. by Stuart Mason (Fairford: Echo Library, 2011), p. 63
[12] Shippey, Tom (2002). J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. Mariner Books. p. 116.


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