Philosophy And Fantasy

Symbolism of the Ring
Symbolism of the Ring:
The Embodiment of Evil
“One Ring to rule them all,
One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all
and in the Darkness bind them”
(1 LotR II,2 The Council of Elrond)
One of the masters of British Literature, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien has
the unique ability to create a fantasy world in which exists a nearly
endless supply of parallelisms to reality. By mastering his own world and
his own language and becoming one with his fantasy, Tolkien is able to
create wonderful symbolism and meaning out of what would otherwise be
considered nonsense. Thus, when one decides to study The Ruling Ring, or
The One Ring, in Tolkiens trilogy “Lord of the Rings”, one must not simply
perform an examination of the ring itself, but rather a complex analysis of
the events which take place from the time of the rings creation until the
time of its destruction. Concurrently, to develop a more complete
understanding of the symbolic nature of the ring, one must first develop a
symbolic understanding of the characters and events that are relevant to
the story.This essay begins with a brief background of Tolkiens life,
followed by a thorough history of the “One Ring” including its creation,
its symbolic significance, its effect on mortals, and its eventual
destruction. Also, this essay will compare Tolkiens Ring to the Rhinegold
Ring of Norse mythology, and will also show how many of the characters in
the trilogy lend themselves to Christ-figure status. By examining the Ring
from these perspectives, a clearer understanding of its symbolic
significance will be reached.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, an English scholar and storyteller, became
fascinated by language at an early age during his schooling at,
particularly the languages of Northern Europe, both ancient and modern.

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This affinity for language did not only lead to his profession, but also
his private hobby, the invention of languages. He was also drawn to the
entire “Northern tradition”, which inspired him to study its myths and
sagas thoroughly. His broad knowledge eventually led to the development of
his opinions about Myth, its relation to language, and the importance of
stories. All these various perspectives: language, the heroic tradition,
and Myth, as well as deeply-held beliefs in Catholic Christianity work
together in all of his works, including The Lord of the Rings (LotR).

The creation of the “One Ring” or the “Ring of Sauron” goes back to the
years following the fall of Morgoth. At this time, Sauron established his
desire to bring the Elves, and indeed all the people of Middle-Earth, under
his control. It was his opinion that Manwe and the Valar had abandoned
Middle-Earth after the fall of Morgoth. In order to bring the Elves under
his control, Sauron persuaded them that his intentions were good, and that
he wanted Middle-Earth to return from the darkness it was in. Eventually
the elves sided with Sauron, and created the Rings of Power under his
guidance. Following the creation of these rings, Sauron created the One
Ring in secret, so that he would be able to control the other rings and
consequently control the Elves. The creation of the Ring, and the essence
of its power is revealed in the following passage.

“and their power was bound up with it, to be subject wholly to it and to
last only as long as it too should last. And much of the strength and will
of Sauron passed intothat One Ring; for the power of the Elven
Rings was very great, and that which should govern them must be a thing of
surpassing potency; and Sauron forged it in the Mountain of Fire in the
Land of Shadow. And while he wore the One Ring he could perceive all the
things that were done by means of the lesser rings, and he could see and
govern the very thoughts of those that wore them.” (from The Silmarillion,
Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age)
The power of the One is recognized by the Elves as soon as Sauron puts the
Ring on his finger. They realize that he can control their thoughts, and
they decide to remove their rings and not use them. The history of the
ring, then, follows that the Elves and Sauron became bitter enemies, and
the One ring remained in Saurons possession until it was taken by Isildur
after Saurons defeat, and was then lost in the river for many years.

Eventually, it was found by Deagol, who was in turn murdered by his brother
Smeagol. Smeagol is the same person as the pitiful Gollum, who retained
the ring until it was taken by Bilbo Baggins. From here, it logically
follows that it was given to Frodo Baggins by Bilbo, under the guidance of
Gandalf the Grey, and so we reach the beginning of LotR.

The nature of the One Ring can be explained in three distinct ways. First
as a personification of Saurons power. Second as a symbol of evil in
general. And finally, as an inanimate object with a mind of its own, with
the ability to work away from its creator as well as return to its creator
of its own accord.. The next section of this essay will examine these
three explanations.

Indeed, as the Rings creator and original “owner”, Sauron had placed a
great amount of his own power into the ring for the purpose of controlling
the other rings. Because of this, the Ring is effectively an extension of
Saurons might. The loss of the Ring does not destroy Sauron, as would the
destruction of it. Rather, his power is simply spread around, and his
influence affects whomever should have possession of the Ring at any time.

Should Sauron recover the ring again, however, his power will be greater
than ever, as is explained in Book one of LotR. “If he recovers it, then
he will command them all again, wherever they be, even the Three, and all
that has been wrought with them will be laid bare, and he will be stronger
than ever.”(1 LotR I,2 The Shadow of the Past) Even without the ring,
then, Sauron’s power was immense. Throughout LotR, however, there are only
hints of this power. Saurons power lies in control and dominion, and the
deprivation of free will. One example of Saurons power reflected in LotR
is in Gollum, whose pitiful condition is the result of Saurons domination
over him as the bearer of the One Ring.

The Ring presented as a symbol of evil is possibly the most important idea
represented in the trilogy. In Tolkiens world, evil is the antithesis of
creativity, and is dependent on destruction and ruin for its basis.

Conversely, goodness is associated with the beauty of creation as well as
the preservation of anything that is created. The symbolic nature of these
two ideologies is represented in the Elven Rings, which symbolize goodness,
and the One Ring, which is wholly evil. A main theme of LotR, then, is the
struggle between good will and evil. Another theme that is in accordance
with this struggle is the theory that while goodness can create and be
beneficial, evil can only serve to pervert and destroy. Therefore, evil
cannot exist unless there is something that can be perverted and destroyed.

This idea is the main essence of Saurons evil nature, and thus the One
Ring is the essence of evil as well, as it is the personification of
Sauron. In the “Letters” of Tolkien, it is said that, “Essentially the
primary symbolism of the Ring is as the will to mere power, seeking to make
itself objective by physical force and mechanism, and so also inevitably by
lies.” (Letters 180) This is to say that the purpose of the Ring is to
destroy, through deceit and corruption, anything good in the world.

Another way to show the symbolic nature of the ring is to say that it
represents the omnipresence of evil. Its very existence, because it
contains the evil will of its creator, has the power to tempt, corrupt, and
in doing so destroy.
The next way in which the nature of the Ring can be examined is in the way
it has seemingly animate abilities as an inanimate object, namely the
ability to work away from and return to its creator. In order to
understand this, one must realize that if the Ring is evil in itself, which
has been explained earlier, then it must also have the ability to work
evil. It cannot necessarily create evil ideas on its own, but instead it
can take advantage of any opportunity which presents itself to the Ring.

Specifically, whenever Frodo is tempted to use or actually uses the Ring,
the Ring has a chance to work corruption on him, even in the absence of the
creator. In this way, the Ring is advantageous, and the stronger the
presence of evil, the easier it is for the Ring to work on the bearer. For
example, on Weathertop, the presence of the Witch-king is a tremendous
evil, and the Ring takes advantage of this, convincing Frodo to use it in
order to escape. Although Frodo is not permanently corrupted at this
point, the Ring is slowly eating away at him, and its power over him grows
each time he uses it. This leads inexorably to the final failure of Frodo,
that being at the Cracks of Doom, when he decides that the Ring is his by
right. At this point, the Ring has won, and it is only by chance that it
is successfully destroyed. It can be said that it is either the
culmination of the Rings corruption of Frodo that resulted in its victory
or else it is that the Ring finally had enough outward evil presence to aid
it in conquering the bearer, that presence being Mordor itself, the heart
of evil.

The idea that the Ring has a mind of its own is further explained in the
way it is never lost or forgotten for long. As Gandalf explains in
Fellowship, “A Ring of Power looks after itself, Frodo. It may slip off
treacherously, but its keeper never abandons it.” (1 LotR 1,2 The Shadow of
the Past) This statement shows how the Ring will protect itself from
destruction if at all possible. The further explanation, that, “It was not
Gollumbut the Ring itself that decided things. The Ring left him.” (1 LotR
1,2 The Shadow of the Past) again shows how the Ring always strives to
return to its creator. This goes to further the notion that Sauron has
control over the Ring even when it is not in his possession. His power is
not vanquished by the absence of the Ring, simply reduced and spread out.

The Ring will always be found, and it will always return to its creator so
that its evil nature can be whole.

The temptation of Frodo throughout LotR is another important aspect of the
power of the One Ring. Unless one first understands what is involved in a
struggle between Good and Evil, it is incomplete to simply say that such a
struggle exists. Also, in order to examine the nature of temptation, one
must also discuss the idea of free will. If the essence of Evil is control
and domination, which has been explained earlier, and the essence of
goodness is freedom and creativity, then it seems as though temptation is
based on evil. The Ring does tempt Frodo, in an effort to subvert him and
conquer his ability to choose whether or not to wear the Ring, but it is
not the nature of goodness to prevent this from happening, because to do so
it would be to destroy Free Will in a different fashion with the same
result. From Frodo’s point of view, the entire trilogy is an examination
of choice and free will. When Frodo chooses to take the Road to the Fire
at the Council of Elrond, he is not only choosing to take a dangerous path,
but he is also choosing to continue to allow himself to be presented with
the temptations that are presented by the Ring. There is a very important
relationship that concerns both temptation as well as the general effect of
the Ring on mortals. This is the conflict between Frodo and Boromir.

Their confrontation is an example of the choice issue, and the temptation
and fall of Boromir is the first of two critical choices that are made at
this point. Boromir is overwhelmed by the Rings power, and it eventually
results in his madness. The Ring preys upon Boromirs desire for the power
of Command, and it corrupts him through this weakness. In the end, Boromir
is rescued only by his death, which, coupled with his last-breath admission
of his attempt to retrieve the Ring, give a bittersweet sense of
redemption. Aragorns words following Boromirs death, “In Minas Tirith
they endure the East Wind, but they do not ask it for tidings. But now
Boromir has taken his road, and we must make haste to choose our own.”(2
LotR III, 1 The Departure of Boromir) sum up the fall of Boromir, and show
what the future must hold for the rest of them. The second choice made at
this point concerns Frodos choice to use the Ring in order to escape from
Boromir. At this time, the power of the Ring nearly conquers Frodo, and it
is only the last-minute intervention of Gandalf which saves Frodo. The
enhanced powers of perception that Frodo has when he wears the Ring is the
essence of temptation put forth by the evil forces at work. Frodo is
obviously tempted to use the Ring for his own prosperity, for the power of
perception is very great with the Ring. At this time, he is unable to see
the danger of the Ring that is ever-growing. This section of the trilogy
is one of the most important of all, and it is a turning point in both the
readers understanding of the Ring as well as Frodos. There is an
interesting parallel here, concerning an issue which will be expanded on at
a later point, a parallel between Frodos individual struggle with
temptation on the summit and Christs temptation on the summit. Not
necessarily to say that Frodo Baggins is a Christ-figure, but rather to
suggest that the issue of free will is an individual matter seems relevant
here.

The effect of the Ring on mortals is not limited to temptation and
corruption. In addition to these, the Ring works in different ways,
exploiting the weaknesses and fears of each individual who encounters it in
any way. Evidently, there are only three individuals who are not tempted
by the Ring. Sauron is immune to the power of it, for it is the
personification of his own evil nature which the Ring represents. Sam is
only tempted by the Ring once, before the Tower of Cirith Ungol, and he
defeats the temptation. This is most likely because of his undying loyalty
to Frodo and his intentions. He would never think to upstage Frodo by
allowing the Ring to become an issue for him. The third individual who is
immune to the temptation of the Ring is Tom Bombadil, who is possibly the
strongest reference to a Christ-figure in the trilogy. He is “the Master
of Wood, water, and hill” (Elwood 105) according to Old Man Willow and
other inhabitants of nature. It is his nature not to be influenced by the
evil forces of the Ring. He knows his bounds, and will never go beyond
them. It is this which prevents him from becoming corrupted by the Ring.

He has set bounds for himself, and is completely content with them. This
lack of ambition is something not present in any other character in the
story. Any other character, including Gollum, Frodo, Boromir, and even
Gandalf, possesses an innate sense of ambition which allows for the evil of
the Ring to work. The most obvious example of the Rings effect on a
mortal is obviously Gollum. Gollum is the result of nearly complete
corruption by the Ring, and his situation demonstrates to us the way that
the Rings evil works. He is evasive, cunning. He lies and deceives
everyone, including himself. He has a peculiar relationship with the Ring,
hating and loving it at the same time. In effect, Gollum represents what
Frodo could have become. Also, he represents in an exaggerated fashion
what becomes of Frodo whenever he wears the Ring. Gollums mind and soul
are shattered by his obsession for the Ring, and its retrieval is his only
and ultimate goal. This advanced stage of corruption is another example of
the parasitic, evil nature which the Ring represents.

The next section of this essay deals with the destruction of the Ring,
including the failure of Frodo and the irony of Gollums intervention. At
the last moment, in the heart of Saurons kingdom, Frodo wavers in his
quest, and gives in to the temptation completely. The Ring has complete
control over Frodo for only an instant before the intervention of Gollum,
whose death is redeemed only by the ultimate completion of his quest, that
to retrieve the Ring. His intervention seems to prevent an ultimate
catastrophe, but one must realize that Gollum wouldve attempted to
retrieve the Ring from Frodo whether or not Frodo had accepted it as his
own. Therefore, it is irrelevant to wonder what would have happened if
Frodo had not failed in his individual quest. At first, it seems as though
this ending to such a complicated ordeal is too incomplete, leaving too
much to chance. However, it is this ending which further develops the
concept of evil explained earlier. Evil is a destructive force, and it
carries within it the formula for its own destruction. Therefore, because
the Ring is the embodiment of Evil, it had the potential for
self-destruction. This idea, of the self-destructive nature of Evil, is
the most important issue concerning the destruction of the Ring. There is
a major flaw in the mind of Sauron, and in turn the mind of Evil, which is
that Sauron never considered the possibility that anyone would desire to
destroy the Ring. Similarly, the Ring itself, in its desire to return to
its master Sauron, never considered the possibility that the level of
corruption that it had performed against Gollum would turn against it.

Indeed, Gollum was so obsessed with the Ring that when he finally gets it
back, he is so ecstatic that he missteps. In both cases, Evil has deceived
itself, which in turn has brought about its destruction. The Ring, the
symbol of Evil and evil power, has been defeated, not by the will of
goodness, but rather by its own doing.

The next section of this essay will make comparisons between LotR and Norse
Mythology, specifically the myths of the Rhinegold Ring and Otters Ransom.

Also, comparisons will be made between LotR and Christianity, specifically
the possible presence of one or more Christ-figures in the trilogy.

Through these comparisons, a greater understanding of the universality of
the Rings symbolic significance will be reached.

The Myth of Otters Ransom is a retelling of a myth contained in the
Volsunga Saga of Norse Mythology. In this account, three gods, Loki, Odin,
and Honir, are in a predicament over the accidental killing of Otter,
brother of the giants Fafnir and Regin. The gods are trapped by the
brothers, and held to avenge Otters death. In order to save them, Odin
makes an offer to repay the family for the death. The ransom price set by
the family is a horde of red gold, enough to entirely cover the body of
Otter. In order to accomplish this, Loki leaves while Odin and Honir
remain. Loki borrows a net from another god, and proceeds to capture the
dwarf Andvari from the bottom of a pool inside a cavern. Loki demands that
Andvari give him his horde of gold that he controls within the pool.

Andvari reluctantly agrees, and gives Loki the gold. After this, Loki
notices a ring on Andvaris finger, and demands it as well. A conflict
emerges from this demand, and eventually Loki gets the ring, along with
Andvaris curse upon it and the gold. Loki returns, and they give the gold
to the family and cover Otters body with it. As they leave, they tell the
family of the curse. The important thing to realize about this story is
that the ring is actually the Rhinegold Ring of Norse Mythology. The
bearer of this Ring is the one who controls the massive horde of Rhinegold.

A case can be made for the horde as a symbol of power, in which case there
is direct relevance to the One Ring in LotR. Whoever bears the ring has
power, the power to command. This possibility in itself has the power to
corrupt those who desire possession of the ring. Another account of the
Rhinegold Ring is portrayed in Stephan Grundys novel, “Rhinegold”. In
this account, the power of the ring is shown more clearly than in the first
account. After the father of Otter, Hraithmar, puts on the ring, he is
overcome by his desire for the gold. As soon as he comes upon the pile
covering Otters body, he is drawn to it. “The longer Hraithmar gazed at
the gold, the hotter its light seemed to burn in his body, shaking him with
a sudden fear of desire.” (Grundy 35) In a shocking similarity to LotR,
the Ring, once used, has a tremendous power to corrupt and overpower.

These are two examples of the many parallels that exist between Tolkiens
fantasy and that of Norse Myth.

The possibility of a Christ-figure in LotR is a difficult issue for several
reasons. First, Tolkien himself denied any such allegorical meaning behind
the trilogy and in fact denied nearly any allegorical meaning at all in his
works. Also, it seems as though many of the characters bear some
similarity to Christ at times, but none are completely representative of
Him. There is almost always some area in which the character in LotR is
lacking with respect to his Christ-like status. For example, The character
of Tom Bombadil, discussed earlier with respect to the Rings power, seems
to be extremely Christ-like in that he is considered by those who know him
to be, “The Master of wood, water, and hill.” (Grundy 35) Also, he is
truly the master of himself, and he knows his limitations as a man. Like
all men, he is limited; like Christ, he limits himself. At this point, it
would seem that Tom is a good representation of Christ. However, there are
two distinct differences that separate Christ from Tom. The first is the
fact that Tom knows of the miserable existence of the Barrow-Wights, yet is
unmoved by the thought of them in misery. This lack of human compassion is
a key difference between Tom and the Christ of faith. Also, while Tom has
limited himself like Christ, he has never suffered to gain his humility.

He has never been ambitious, and is not tempted. To create another
symbolic reference to the One Ring, Tom would never feel the temptation for
the Ring, in the same way he would never be tempted by a source of power
such as the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. This is an aspect of
Tom that would suggest that he is less human than he would appear to be.

Perhaps he is a “joyful savior” rather than the type of savior that the
faith Christ was portrayed to have been. Tom is one example of a
Christ-figure in the trilogy. Others include Gandalf, whose remarkable
return to life after the battle with the Balrog could be symbolic of
Christs resurrection. Also, Gandalfs ability to be tempted yet resist
temptation, his ordeal after his resurrection in which his friends did not
at first recognize him, and his transformation from Gandalf the Grey to
Gandalf the White are all areas in which parallels can be drawn to Christ.

The only problem with the theory of Gandalf is that he is ultimately unable
to save Middle-Earth. Although he guides Frodo in his mission, he can
hardly receive credit when the mission fails. He is not strong enough to
save middle-earth, and this is because he was too strong in his successful
attempt to resist the temptation of the Ring.

In order to summarize the essence of this study on the symbolism of the One
Ring, it can be said that the Ring itself can be explained separately from
an explanation of the Evil nature of the Ring. The Ring itself is the
reality of Evil in the physical world. In every way, it is the nature of
evil which must be either accepted or rejected outright. Its mere presence
is a personification of the opportunity for people to have and execute free
will and make morally correct or incorrect decisions. Also, the ring is a
symbol of power, evil power. It is the part of nature that continually
strives to destroy a persons ability to exercise free will. The exercise
of Evil, and in essence the power of the Ring, is the exact opposite of
freedom. As for the nature of evil, it has been shown that no good can
possibly come from evil means, but evil results can be averted if one can
acquire the evil object while resisting the evil nature of it. Also, the
Ring is both real and symbolic. While the physical nature of the Ring is
behavioral, and can be physically observed, the essence or power of the
Ring is also a concept, a concept which opposes morality. Because of this,
the Ring may be destroyed physically, and with it the power of its creator,
but its essence, Evil, will remain present in some form until the end of time.

Works Cited
Crossley-Holland, Kevin. The Norse Myths. New York: Pantheon, 1980.

Ellwood, Gracia Fay. Good News From Tolkiens Middle Earth. Grand Rapids,
Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1970.

Grundy, Stephan. Rhinegold. New York: Bantam, 1994.

Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. New York:
Ballantine,
I–1954, II–1955, III–1956.

(References to The Lord of the Rings (LotR) are by volume, book
number, chapter
number and chapter title.)
Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel. The Silmarillion. New York: Ballantine, 1995.

(References to The Silmarillion are by chapter name)
Works Consulted
Carter, Lin. Tolkien: A Look Behind The Lord of the Rings. New York:
Ballantine, 1969.

Kocher, Paul H. Master of Middle Earth. New York: Ballantine, 1972.

Petty, Anne C. One Ring to Bind Them All: Tolkiens Mythology. Mobile:
Univ. of
Alabama Press, 1979
Ready, William. The Tolkien Relation. Chicago: Henry Regenery Co., 1968.

Schlauch, Margaret. The Saga of the Volsungs. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1978
Category: English

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