Fair is Foul: Macbeth in the ‘Lord of the Rings’

Macbeth opens with two scenes that set up a third: returning from a great battle with the Norwegians, the victorious captains Macbeth and Banquo encounter the three witches. J.R.R. Tolkien would have been professionally curious about these echoes of the days when the Norsemen were a presence north of the border. What captivated his imagination in Macbeth, I suggest, is Shakespeare’s insight as echoed softly by the Lady Galadriel, namely that those who confuse the magic of the Enemy with enchantment they yearn for are in grave peril. As Shakespeare put it: fair is foul and foul is fair.

Shakespeare drew upon the history he found in Hollinshed’s ‘Chronicles’ (1577). Hollinshed names the three witches “feiries, indued with knowledge of prophesie by their necromanticall science.” English literature requires Tolkien’s On Fairy-stories to properly clarify the difference between real fairies and necromancy (scientific magic).

Macbeth meets the three weird sisters twice. Two of the prophecies he receives on his second meeting appear in revised form in LOTR:  (i) Birnam wood coming to Dunsinane became the Ents marching on Isengard; (ii) no man of woman born shall harm Macbeth became the dispatch of the chief Ringwraith by a woman and a hobbit. More obscurely (and with a Catholic eye to history), the vision of the line of Stuart kings descending from Banquo lent itself to the vision of the Numenorean kings-in-exile culminating in Aragorn, seen by the hobbits as they listen to Tom Bombadil on the Barrow-downs.

My concern here is with the first meeting, which Tolkien invokes in his commentary on the Old English idea of necromancy. What he sees in this third act of Macbeth is two mortals on the blasted heath, beyond the borders of any community, walking therefore in the shadow lands where Cain begat his brood and humans and monsters become one.

Tolkien remixed Shakespeare’s intertwining of fair and foul in various forms: the (precious) Ring and Boromir, for example. But (as Aragorn reminds Eomer) what we find in Fairy and on its borders is no less true in our own house: all selves are hidden from one another and all dissemble on occasion. Fair and foul are what is at stake in a meeting between incarnate minds.

The first meeting: the three sisters greet Macbeth by his present title, by that of Thane of Cawdor, and by that of ‘king hereafter’. The theme of interiority – as I well remember from studying this play at school aged 17 – 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?

I still remember the awe I felt on reading a mid-twentieth-century study on Shakespeare’s tragedies (the author’s name I have forgotten) commentary on this line. Banquo’s question suggests the witches’ ‘fair’ prophesies have spoken aloud a foul thought already formed within Macbeth’s mind. But while Macbeth’s later aside (“why do I yield to that suggestion whose horrid image doth unfix my hair…”) seems to confirm this suspicion, a suspicion it must remain – interior thoughts and desires may be read as signs on the face, but such readings can never be certain.

The relationship between outer face and inner thoughts and desires is 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.

Duncan is a lousy judge of character – betrayed by one Thane of Cawdor he gives the title to Macbeth, who thereupon murders him in his sleep. Lady Macbeth is of different metal. Before the murder, when Macbeth first returns to his castle, she warns him:

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

Lady Macbeth recalls Banquo’s question: the face of Macbeth suggests something untoward within. She 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.

We read something of the inner state of someone in their face, but such readings are inherently uncertain. The dark art of dissembling complicates any reading. We all learn to put on a face to meet the faces that we meet and so know that any other is more or less dissembling.

Tolkien erected much of The Two Towers on the twin themes of interiority and dissembling. Saruman is a face of Melkor and Sauron when they cloaked their Foul intentions under a Fair face. And before we even meet Wormtongue, who like his master Saruman cloaks craven counsel in words of peace and friendship, Frodo Baggins at the inn at Bree believes that a servant of the Enemy would seem fairer and feel fouler than this weather-beaten Ranger they call Strider.

Frodo recalls Macbeth’s first words, on his first appearance, act 1, scene 3: “So foul and fair a day I have not seen, which themselves echo: the closing words of scene 1:

Fair is foul, and foul is fair.

Hover through the fog and filthy air.

In Middle-earth in the Third Age the answer to all these questions are seen in the Mirror of the Lady, only we are left to decipher the meaning of what is shown. The Lady “read many hearts and desires” when the Company were in Lorien, recalls Gimli later. She does not need to read the face because she can look directly, mind to mind. Her Mirror shows us something of what she sees when she looks at us. (Frodo then shows us what he can see that she is.)

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?