On May 13, 1964, J. R. R. Tolkien wrote a letter to Colin Bailey about his unfinished story “The New Shadow.” The story began about 100 years after the fall of Mordor (the dominion of the villain Sauron in “The Lord of the Rings”), thus in presumably happy times. Tolkien told Bailey, however, that he did not finish the story because it was too “sinister and depressing.” One would think that, after the fall of Mordor, things would be looking up. Tolkien’s reason for not continuing such a story was that things might be even worse than they were before.

What was behind Tolkien’s hesitation to finish his story? The title of the story, “The New Shadow,” may have come from Plato – the shadows in the cave – or from the shadow cast upon the earth by Satan’s part in the fall of man. Tolkien gives this reason: “Since we are dealing with Men it is inevitable that we should be concerned with the most regrettable feature of their nature: their quick satiety with good.” It’s like saying that the good is not “good enough” for us. We might wonder why.

So the people of Gondor (Tolkien’s land of men), in times of peace, justice and prosperity, would become “discontented and restless.” Notice that Tolkien does not place the fault in Gondor as a place. Evidently, it would not matter where it happened – regardless, the best condition turns out to be the most dangerous condition. G. K. Chesterton had earlier said that we are more likely to lose our souls if we are rich than if we are poor, even though the poor can also lose theirs for the same reason – that is, by what they choose to do.

The words of Tolkien are striking: “We are dealing with Men.” We are not dealing with hobbits, who, I believe, could live in reasonable prosperity. Here, precisely the condition that we seek for ourselves – peace and prosperity – is pictured as the most morally dangerous atmosphere for our human condition. Some Romans worried that if the Empire destroyed Carthage, they would be in moral danger without an enemy to keep them disciplined. We are perplexed by this type of situation. We think that our problems will be over when we have a sufficiency of things. We look outside, not inside, of ourselves for what can go wrong and why.

I mentioned Plato: He was convinced that our desires are unlimited. They drive us on to more and more unless we hold them in place. It was Augustine who poignantly discovered in his very living that the “good things” he chose could be turned away from their natural purpose by how he used them.

In considering this “regrettable feature of [our] nature,” Tolkien thought that the story of “The New Shadow” would have to go this way: “I found that even so early there was an outcrop of revolutionary plots, about a centre of secret Satanistic religion; while Gondorian boys were playing at being Orcs and going around doing damage.” This passage is almost directly out of Aristotle, who said the same thing less graphically. The “revolutionary plots” were directed at the goodness of being. The “Satanistic religion” made man God.

“I could have written a `thriller’ about the plot and its discovery and overthrow,” Tolkien adds, “but it would be just that. Not worth doing.” What might Tolkien have meant here? He could have written a thriller in which the plots of these young men are discovered and overthrown. Still, it was “not worth doing.” Why was this story not worth finishing, while writing “The Lord of the Rings” was worth finishing? What was the difference?

“Their quick satiety with the good” is given as the reason for the “most regrettable” thing about the nature of men. One must look long and hard at such an affirmation. The question is: Is this “quick satiety” with the “good” such a bad thing? Augustine, of course, is witness to its factuality. All finite things are good. We are given minds to see that goodness in them.

Our nature is such that we never find complete satiety in anything less than that for which we were put into existence in the first place. And this end is not just one more finite good, no matter how good it is. The “Satanistic” part constitutes a turning away from the good that is there, even if not complete, to a “good” that we make ourselves. This story has been repeated so often in our kind that we should by now have learned the lesson. The reason Tolkien did not finish the story is that we should already know these things from our own experience.

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is a professor of government. He can be reached at schalljgeorgetown.edu. As This Jesuit Sees It . appears every other Friday, with Fr. Maher, Fr. O’Brien and Fr. Schall alternating as writers.

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