Fair is Foul: Macbeth and LOTR

The twin pressures of earning a living and working on Rounded Globe have left me for now with insufficient time to continue my close reading of Return of the Shadow. I hope to resume in about a month. In the meanwhile, here is a first attempt to set down some as yet inchoate thoughts about the significance to LOTR of Tolkien’s reading of Macbeth.

To help initial orientation, note that Tolkien would have been drawn to Macbeth, not only because it is a story that descends from the days when the Norse men were a substantial power in Scotland (the play begins with reports of a great battle with the Norwegians), but also because the story includes one of those encounters between mortals and fairies that so interested him. On this latter, Shakespeare himself drew upon the history he found in Hollinshed’s ‘Chronicles’ (1577), where it is suggested that the three witches were “feiries, indued with knowledge of prophesie by their necromanticall science.”

Macbeth meets with the weird sisters twice in the play, and it is well known that the prophecies he receives on his second meeting were incorporated in revised form in LOTR:  Birnam wood coming to Dunsinane became the Ents marching on Isengard; no man of woman born shall harm Macbeth became the dispatch of the chief Ringwraith by a woman and a hobbit; and – less well known – the vision of the line of Stuart kings descending from Banquo became the vision of the Numenorean kings culminating in Aragorn seen by the hobbits as they listen to Tom Bombadil on the Barrow Downs.

This invites the question of whether we can discern within LOTR elements of Macbeth’s first meeting with the witches. I think we can, but I think this only comes to light when we explore the theme of what I will call ‘interiority’ that is opened up by this first encounter.

The first meeting is straightforward enough: Returning from battle, Macbeth and Banquo, two captains of the victorious army, meet the three ‘fairies,’ who hail Macbeth by his present title, by that of Thane of Cawdor, and by that of ‘king hereafter’.

The theme of interiority is struck at once by Banquo who, turning to Macbeth, exclaims:

Good sir, why do you start; and seem to fear things that do sound so fair?

Banquo’s question suggests that the witches have spoken aloud something that was already present within Macbeth’s inner thoughts. But while Macbeth’s subsequent aside (“why do I yield to that suggestion whose horrid image doth unfix my hair…”) would seem to confirm this suspicion, a suspicion it must remain – for while interior thoughts and desires may at times be discerned on the face of another, such readings can never be certain.

The relationship between the outer face and the inner thoughts and desires is in fact a prominent theme in the first act of the play. In the scene following the meeting with the witches, Duncan, King of Scotland, declares in reference to the treasonous Thane of Cawdor, in whom he had placed absolute trust:

There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face.

Yet it is not quite so simple. Duncan is a lousy judge of character – betrayed by one Thane of Cawdor he gives the title to Macbeth, who promptly murders him in his sleep. And before the murder, when Macbeth first returns to his castle, his wife warns him:

Your face, my thane, is as a book where men may read strange matters.

Lady Macbeth’s words echo those of Banquo: Macbeth’s actual thoughts might not be written on his face, yet his face indicates that something untoward is going on within. Lady Macbeth therefore urges her husband to dissemble:

Bear welcome in your eye, your hand, your tongue: look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t.

This is what I mean by the theme of interiority: the fact is that we do read something of the inner state of someone in their face, but such readings are inherently uncertain, and this is in part because we all learn to dissemble to varying degrees – to put on a face to meet the faces that we meet.

Tolkien certainly played with the twin themes of interiority and dissembling. Mortals in LOTR must learn in whom to place their trust. Theoden, for example, is initially deceived by Wormtongue’s fair words, but by the time he encounters Saruman in his tower at Isengard he has learned to discern the foul purpose that lies behind the wizard’s enchanting talk. Or earlier, when the hobbits first meet Strider in Bree, Frodo must judge the heart of a rather grim looking stranger. And Frodo’s choice of words in Bree points us directly to Macbeth: a servant of the Enemy, Frodo declares, would “seem fairer and feel fouler, if you understand.” The relationship of fair and foul is a motif running through Macbeth (the three witches, for example, together cry: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair,” while Macbeth’s first words in the play are: “So foul and fair a day I have not seen”).

Such judgment of others is a peculiarly mortal business in LOTR. For there is, on the whole, no ambiguity about the inner natures of the fantastical creatures that we meet in Middle-earth: Orcs are foul and Elves are fair; it is only mortals who may be one or the other, or blend the two within them. And it is primarily mortals who are compelled to take the leap of faith that is trust in another; for Elves, or at least the greatest Elves, can somehow see directly into the hearts and minds of others, and so need not rely on perilous readings of the face.

And here, I think, is a key to much that we find in Lorien in the person of the Lady Galadriel.

On the face of it, the meeting of the Company with Galadriel, and her silent questioning and tempting of each of them, are far away from the meeting of Macbeth and Banquo with the three witches. Yet consider the nature of this silent questioning: Galadriel, as Gimli later recalls, “read many hearts and desires.” In other words, Tolkien imagines this encounter of mortals and fairy queen by discarding the prophetic power of Shakespeare’s witches and putting in its place precisely that power of reading the heart the near impossibility of which, for mortals, is a dominant theme in the first act of Macbeth.

What did Galadriel see when she looked into the heart of Boromir? And did she seal his fate any less than did the three witches when they hailed Macbeth as one who would be king?

One thought on “Fair is Foul: Macbeth and LOTR

  1. tom hillman

    Each saw the reflection of their own desire in that meeting of the minds. Galadriel and Boromir both longed to save their people and their homes, and in the Ring would offer them powerful aid towards this end, or so it seemed at first. Boromir realized at this moment that he wanted the Ring. I know we have differed on this to some degree in the past, but I think if we combine what Sam says to Faramir about Boromir realizing what he had wanted all along, with Faramir’s “What did she say to you, the Lady that dies not? What did she see? What woke in your heart then? — we can agree that this was a critical moment. Since I see precious (yes) little evidence that Boromir was thinking about the Ring between the Council and Lorien, I still think Sam is likely exaggerating the threat or the extent of the desire before Lorien. But I cannot deny that the statements of F and S together seem pretty weighty.

    We can see B and G as to some degree mirror images of each other. Though both feel a desire for the Ring, he asks for it, but she does not. He attempts to take it by force, but she does not, though her control of the situation in Lorien is far more complete. She is wise enough to know, despite the temptation, that it will all end badly. Boromir cannot see that all shall love him and despair. I am coming to believe that it is both Frodo’s interaction with Galadriel in Lorien and his interaction with Boromir on Amon Hen which decide him not only to cross the river, but never to offer the Ring to anyone else again. Frodo’s interest in learning to use the Ring also plays a role here, as do his two close calls with Sauron.

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