Book Review: The Dark Powers of Tolkien (by David Day)

As I do every year at this time, I find myself wanting to read anything and everything I can about Tolkien, his worlds, and his philosophy. When I saw David Days The Dark Powers of Tolkien in a bookshop in Edinburgh, I knew at once that I had to have it. Well, I started reading it and, a day later, I’m finished and ready to share my thoughts with all of you.

It’s a slender book, but Day manages to pack quite a lot into it despite that. He gives us a pretty good overview of the various incarnations of evil that appear in all of the ages of Middle-earth, ranging from the titanic force of Morgoth in the First and Sauron in the Second and Third to the rather lesser evils of Saruman, Orcs, Trolls, and sundry dragons and other monsters. The book is arranged chronologically, so that the reader gets a good sense of how evil incarnates in each Age of Middle-earth.

In the process, he shows us how, for Tolkien, evil is nothing more nor less than the absence of good. In other words, it is a nothingness that can only ever be self-defeating. We see this time and time again in his work. Melkor/Morgoth, for all of his grand ambitions, finds that he lacks the power to make something out of nothing, and so must content himself with damaging and corrupting the work of others, and his efforts ultimately end up being self-defeating. The same is true of Sauron who, in his arrogance and desire to dominate, sows the seeds of his own undoing.

Day draws some interesting parallels between Tolkien’s work and the various threads and cultures that he drew upon, some of which even I wasn’t aware of. In doing so, Day helps us to appreciate the deep wells of Tolkien’s own mind. Those who aren’t as familiar with his work and his influences will definitely find some valuable gems. Day is particularly successful at showing how Tolkien drew on the various myths and legends of northern Europe, though he also does some cross-cultural exploration that I found intriguing. Day also provides some interesting glosses on nomenclature and how, in Tolkien’s fiction, the name of a person or thing reveals something about its essential nature.

Perhaps the book’s most interesting contribution to an understanding of Tolkien’s work is his comparison of Tolkien to Milton. The two men are, arguably, the greatest crafters of epic in English, and each of them has a particularly keen eye of how to create evil characters that are at once deeply repugnant yet utterly comprehensible.

Lastly, a word on the illustrations. The book is lavishly illustrated with various styles of image. Some of them are truly disturbing in their ability to capture the grandeur and terror of Tolkien’s evil creations. While some of them may not be to everyone’s taste, many of them are very extraordinary indeed.

Overall, I think this book will be enjoyed by those, like me, who have a voracious appetite for everything Tolkien. There’s not necessarily anything truly groundbreaking in the book, it does provide a good overview of the types of evil creatures that populate Tolkien’s fiction.