Symbolism of the RingSymbolism of the Ring:The Embodiment of Evil”One Ring to rule them all,One Ring to find them,One Ring to bring them alland in the Darkness bind them”(1 LotR II,2 The Council of Elrond)One of the masters of British Literature, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien hasthe unique ability to create a fantasy world in which exists a nearlyendless supply of parallelisms to reality. By mastering his own world andhis own language and becoming one with his fantasy, Tolkien is able tocreate wonderful symbolism and meaning out of what would otherwise beconsidered nonsense. Thus, when one decides to study The Ruling Ring, orThe One Ring, in Tolkiens trilogy “Lord of the Rings”, one must not simplyperform an examination of the ring itself, but rather a complex analysis ofthe events which take place from the time of the rings creation until thetime of its destruction. Concurrently, to develop a more completeunderstanding of the symbolic nature of the ring, one must first develop asymbolic understanding of the characters and events that are relevant tothe 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 eventualdestruction. Also, this essay will compare Tolkiens Ring to the RhinegoldRing of Norse mythology, and will also show how many of the characters inthe trilogy lend themselves to Christ-figure status.
By examining the Ringfrom these perspectives, a clearer understanding of its symbolicsignificance will be reached. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, an English scholar and storyteller, becamefascinated by language at an early age during his schooling at,particularly the languages of Northern Europe, both ancient and modern. This affinity for language did not only lead to his profession, but alsohis private hobby, the invention of languages. He was also drawn to theentire “Northern tradition”, which inspired him to study its myths andsagas thoroughly. His broad knowledge eventually led to the development ofhis opinions about Myth, its relation to language, and the importance ofstories.
All these various perspectives: language, the heroic tradition,and Myth, as well as deeply-held beliefs in Catholic Christianity worktogether 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 theyears following the fall of Morgoth. At this time, Sauron established hisdesire to bring the Elves, and indeed all the people of Middle-Earth, underhis control. It was his opinion that Manwe and the Valar had abandonedMiddle-Earth after the fall of Morgoth. In order to bring the Elves underhis control, Sauron persuaded them that his intentions were good, and thathe wanted Middle-Earth to return from the darkness it was in.
Eventuallythe elves sided with Sauron, and created the Rings of Power under hisguidance. Following the creation of these rings, Sauron created the OneRing in secret, so that he would be able to control the other rings andconsequently control the Elves. The creation of the Ring, and the essenceof its power is revealed in the following passage. “and their power was bound up with it, to be subject wholly to it and tolast only as long as it too should last.
And much of the strength and willof Sauron passed intothat One Ring; for the power of the ElvenRings was very great, and that which should govern them must be a thing ofsurpassing potency; and Sauron forged it in the Mountain of Fire in theLand of Shadow. And while he wore the One Ring he could perceive all thethings that were done by means of the lesser rings, and he could see andgovern 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 theRing on his finger. They realize that he can control their thoughts, andthey decide to remove their rings and not use them. The history of thering, then, follows that the Elves and Sauron became bitter enemies, andthe One ring remained in Saurons possession until it was taken by Isildurafter 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 brotherSmeagol. Smeagol is the same person as the pitiful Gollum, who retainedthe ring until it was taken by Bilbo Baggins. From here, it logicallyfollows that it was given to Frodo Baggins by Bilbo, under the guidance ofGandalf the Grey, and so we reach the beginning of LotR. The nature of the One Ring can be explained in three distinct ways. Firstas a personification of Saurons power. Second as a symbol of evil ingeneral.
And finally, as an inanimate object with a mind of its own, withthe ability to work away from its creator as well as return to its creatorof its own accord. . The next section of this essay will examine thesethree explanations. Indeed, as the Rings creator and original “owner”, Sauron had placed agreat amount of his own power into the ring for the purpose of controllingthe other rings. Because of this, the Ring is effectively an extension ofSaurons might.
The loss of the Ring does not destroy Sauron, as would thedestruction of it. Rather, his power is simply spread around, and hisinfluence affects whomever should have possession of the Ring at any time. Should Sauron recover the ring again, however, his power will be greaterthan ever, as is explained in Book one of LotR. “If he recovers it, thenhe will command them all again, wherever they be, even the Three, and allthat has been wrought with them will be laid bare, and he will be strongerthan 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 onlyhints of this power. Saurons power lies in control and dominion, and thedeprivation of free will. One example of Saurons power reflected in LotRis in Gollum, whose pitiful condition is the result of Saurons dominationover him as the bearer of the One Ring.
The Ring presented as a symbol of evil is possibly the most important idearepresented in the trilogy. In Tolkiens world, evil is the antithesis ofcreativity, and is dependent on destruction and ruin for its basis. Conversely, goodness is associated with the beauty of creation as well asthe preservation of anything that is created. The symbolic nature of thesetwo 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 thestruggle between good will and evil. Another theme that is in accordancewith this struggle is the theory that while goodness can create and bebeneficial, evil can only serve to pervert and destroy. Therefore, evilcannot exist unless there is something that can be perverted and destroyed. This idea is the main essence of Saurons evil nature, and thus the OneRing is the essence of evil as well, as it is the personification ofSauron. In the “Letters” of Tolkien, it is said that, “Essentially theprimary symbolism of the Ring is as the will to mere power, seeking to makeitself objective by physical force and mechanism, and so also inevitably bylies.
” (Letters 180) This is to say that the purpose of the Ring is todestroy, through deceit and corruption, anything good in the world. Another way to show the symbolic nature of the ring is to say that itrepresents the omnipresence of evil. Its very existence, because itcontains the evil will of its creator, has the power to tempt, corrupt, andin doing so destroy. The next way in which the nature of the Ring can be examined is in the wayit has seemingly animate abilities as an inanimate object, namely theability to work away from and return to its creator. In order tounderstand this, one must realize that if the Ring is evil in itself, whichhas been explained earlier, then it must also have the ability to workevil. It cannot necessarily create evil ideas on its own, but instead itcan 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 thecreator. In this way, the Ring is advantageous, and the stronger thepresence of evil, the easier it is for the Ring to work on the bearer. Forexample, on Weathertop, the presence of the Witch-king is a tremendousevil, and the Ring takes advantage of this, convincing Frodo to use it inorder to escape. Although Frodo is not permanently corrupted at thispoint, the Ring is slowly eating away at him, and its power over him growseach 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 byright. At this point, the Ring has won, and it is only by chance that itis successfully destroyed. It can be said that it is either theculmination of the Rings corruption of Frodo that resulted in its victoryor else it is that the Ring finally had enough outward evil presence to aidit in conquering the bearer, that presence being Mordor itself, the heartof evil. The idea that the Ring has a mind of its own is further explained in theway it is never lost or forgotten for long.
As Gandalf explains inFellowship, “A Ring of Power looks after itself, Frodo. It may slip offtreacherously, but its keeper never abandons it. ” (1 LotR 1,2 The Shadow ofthe Past) This statement shows how the Ring will protect itself fromdestruction if at all possible. The further explanation, that, “It was notGollumbut the Ring itself that decided things. The Ring left him. ” (1 LotR1,2 The Shadow of the Past) again shows how the Ring always strives toreturn to its creator.
This goes to further the notion that Sauron hascontrol over the Ring even when it is not in his possession. His power isnot 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 sothat its evil nature can be whole. The temptation of Frodo throughout LotR is another important aspect of thepower of the One Ring. Unless one first understands what is involved in astruggle between Good and Evil, it is incomplete to simply say that such astruggle exists. Also, in order to examine the nature of temptation, onemust also discuss the idea of free will.
If the essence of Evil is controland domination, which has been explained earlier, and the essence ofgoodness is freedom and creativity, then it seems as though temptation isbased on evil. The Ring does tempt Frodo, in an effort to subvert him andconquer his ability to choose whether or not to wear the Ring, but it isnot the nature of goodness to prevent this from happening, because to do soit would be to destroy Free Will in a different fashion with the sameresult. From Frodo’s point of view, the entire trilogy is an examinationof choice and free will. When Frodo chooses to take the Road to the Fireat 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 withthe temptations that are presented by the Ring.
There is a very importantrelationship that concerns both temptation as well as the general effect ofthe Ring on mortals. This is the conflict between Frodo and Boromir. Their confrontation is an example of the choice issue, and the temptationand fall of Boromir is the first of two critical choices that are made atthis point. Boromir is overwhelmed by the Rings power, and it eventuallyresults in his madness. The Ring preys upon Boromirs desire for the powerof Command, and it corrupts him through this weakness. In the end, Boromiris rescued only by his death, which, coupled with his last-breath admissionof his attempt to retrieve the Ring, give a bittersweet sense ofredemption.
Aragorns words following Boromirs death, “In Minas Tiriththey endure the East Wind, but they do not ask it for tidings. But nowBoromir has taken his road, and we must make haste to choose our own. “(2LotR III, 1 The Departure of Boromir) sum up the fall of Boromir, and showwhat the future must hold for the rest of them. The second choice made atthis point concerns Frodos choice to use the Ring in order to escape fromBoromir.
At this time, the power of the Ring nearly conquers Frodo, and itis only the last-minute intervention of Gandalf which saves Frodo. Theenhanced powers of perception that Frodo has when he wears the Ring is theessence of temptation put forth by the evil forces at work. Frodo isobviously tempted to use the Ring for his own prosperity, for the power ofperception is very great with the Ring. At this time, he is unable to seethe danger of the Ring that is ever-growing.
This section of the trilogyis one of the most important of all, and it is a turning point in both thereaders understanding of the Ring as well as Frodos. There is aninteresting parallel here, concerning an issue which will be expanded on ata later point, a parallel between Frodos individual struggle withtemptation on the summit and Christs temptation on the summit. Notnecessarily to say that Frodo Baggins is a Christ-figure, but rather tosuggest that the issue of free will is an individual matter seems relevanthere. The effect of the Ring on mortals is not limited to temptation andcorruption.
In addition to these, the Ring works in different ways,exploiting the weaknesses and fears of each individual who encounters it inany way. Evidently, there are only three individuals who are not temptedby the Ring. Sauron is immune to the power of it, for it is thepersonification of his own evil nature which the Ring represents. Sam isonly tempted by the Ring once, before the Tower of Cirith Ungol, and hedefeats the temptation. This is most likely because of his undying loyaltyto Frodo and his intentions.
He would never think to upstage Frodo byallowing the Ring to become an issue for him. The third individual who isimmune to the temptation of the Ring is Tom Bombadil, who is possibly thestrongest reference to a Christ-figure in the trilogy. He is “the Masterof Wood, water, and hill” (Elwood 105) according to Old Man Willow andother inhabitants of nature. It is his nature not to be influenced by theevil forces of the Ring.
He knows his bounds, and will never go beyondthem. It is this which prevents him from becoming corrupted by the Ring. He has set bounds for himself, and is completely content with them. Thislack of ambition is something not present in any other character in thestory. Any other character, including Gollum, Frodo, Boromir, and evenGandalf, possesses an innate sense of ambition which allows for the evil ofthe Ring to work. The most obvious example of the Rings effect on amortal is obviously Gollum.
Gollum is the result of nearly completecorruption by the Ring, and his situation demonstrates to us the way thatthe Rings evil works. He is evasive, cunning. He lies and deceiveseveryone, including himself. He has a peculiar relationship with the Ring,hating and loving it at the same time. In effect, Gollum represents whatFrodo could have become.
Also, he represents in an exaggerated fashionwhat becomes of Frodo whenever he wears the Ring. Gollums mind and soulare shattered by his obsession for the Ring, and its retrieval is his onlyand ultimate goal. This advanced stage of corruption is another example ofthe 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.
Atthe last moment, in the heart of Saurons kingdom, Frodo wavers in hisquest, and gives in to the temptation completely. The Ring has completecontrol over Frodo for only an instant before the intervention of Gollum,whose death is redeemed only by the ultimate completion of his quest, thatto retrieve the Ring. His intervention seems to prevent an ultimatecatastrophe, but one must realize that Gollum wouldve attempted toretrieve the Ring from Frodo whether or not Frodo had accepted it as hisown. Therefore, it is irrelevant to wonder what would have happened ifFrodo had not failed in his individual quest. At first, it seems as thoughthis ending to such a complicated ordeal is too incomplete, leaving toomuch to chance.
However, it is this ending which further develops theconcept of evil explained earlier. Evil is a destructive force, and itcarries within it the formula for its own destruction. Therefore, becausethe Ring is the embodiment of Evil, it had the potential forself-destruction. This idea, of the self-destructive nature of Evil, isthe most important issue concerning the destruction of the Ring. There isa major flaw in the mind of Sauron, and in turn the mind of Evil, which isthat Sauron never considered the possibility that anyone would desire todestroy the Ring. Similarly, the Ring itself, in its desire to return toits master Sauron, never considered the possibility that the level ofcorruption that it had performed against Gollum would turn against it.
Indeed, Gollum was so obsessed with the Ring that when he finally gets itback, he is so ecstatic that he missteps. In both cases, Evil has deceiveditself, which in turn has brought about its destruction. The Ring, thesymbol of Evil and evil power, has been defeated, not by the will ofgoodness, but rather by its own doing. The next section of this essay will make comparisons between LotR and NorseMythology, specifically the myths of the Rhinegold Ring and Otters Ransom.
Also, comparisons will be made between LotR and Christianity, specificallythe possible presence of one or more Christ-figures in the trilogy. Through these comparisons, a greater understanding of the universality ofthe Rings symbolic significance will be reached. The Myth of Otters Ransom is a retelling of a myth contained in theVolsunga 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 thebrothers, and held to avenge Otters death. In order to save them, Odinmakes an offer to repay the family for the death. The ransom price set bythe family is a horde of red gold, enough to entirely cover the body ofOtter. In order to accomplish this, Loki leaves while Odin and Honirremain.
Loki borrows a net from another god, and proceeds to capture thedwarf Andvari from the bottom of a pool inside a cavern. Loki demands thatAndvari give him his horde of gold that he controls within the pool. Andvari reluctantly agrees, and gives Loki the gold. After this, Lokinotices a ring on Andvaris finger, and demands it as well. A conflictemerges from this demand, and eventually Loki gets the ring, along withAndvaris curse upon it and the gold.
Loki returns, and they give the goldto the family and cover Otters body with it. As they leave, they tell thefamily of the curse. The important thing to realize about this story isthat the ring is actually the Rhinegold Ring of Norse Mythology. Thebearer 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 thereis direct relevance to the One Ring in LotR. Whoever bears the ring haspower, the power to command.
This possibility in itself has the power tocorrupt those who desire possession of the ring. Another account of theRhinegold Ring is portrayed in Stephan Grundys novel, “Rhinegold”. Inthis account, the power of the ring is shown more clearly than in the firstaccount. After the father of Otter, Hraithmar, puts on the ring, he isovercome by his desire for the gold. As soon as he comes upon the pilecovering Otters body, he is drawn to it.
“The longer Hraithmar gazed atthe gold, the hotter its light seemed to burn in his body, shaking him witha 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 Tolkiensfantasy and that of Norse Myth. The possibility of a Christ-figure in LotR is a difficult issue for severalreasons. First, Tolkien himself denied any such allegorical meaning behindthe trilogy and in fact denied nearly any allegorical meaning at all in hisworks. Also, it seems as though many of the characters bear somesimilarity to Christ at times, but none are completely representative ofHim.
There is almost always some area in which the character in LotR islacking with respect to his Christ-like status. For example, The characterof Tom Bombadil, discussed earlier with respect to the Rings power, seemsto be extremely Christ-like in that he is considered by those who know himto be, “The Master of wood, water, and hill. ” (Grundy 35) Also, he istruly the master of himself, and he knows his limitations as a man. Likeall men, he is limited; like Christ, he limits himself. At this point, itwould seem that Tom is a good representation of Christ.
However, there aretwo distinct differences that separate Christ from Tom. The first is thefact that Tom knows of the miserable existence of the Barrow-Wights, yet isunmoved by the thought of them in misery. This lack of human compassion isa key difference between Tom and the Christ of faith. Also, while Tom haslimited himself like Christ, he has never suffered to gain his humility. He has never been ambitious, and is not tempted. To create anothersymbolic reference to the One Ring, Tom would never feel the temptation forthe Ring, in the same way he would never be tempted by a source of powersuch as the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden.
This is an aspect ofTom 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 thefaith Christ was portrayed to have been. Tom is one example of aChrist-figure in the trilogy. Others include Gandalf, whose remarkablereturn to life after the battle with the Balrog could be symbolic ofChrists resurrection. Also, Gandalfs ability to be tempted yet resisttemptation, his ordeal after his resurrection in which his friends did notat first recognize him, and his transformation from Gandalf the Grey toGandalf 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 unableto save Middle-Earth.
Although he guides Frodo in his mission, he canhardly receive credit when the mission fails. He is not strong enough tosave middle-earth, and this is because he was too strong in his successfulattempt to resist the temptation of the Ring. In order to summarize the essence of this study on the symbolism of the OneRing, it can be said that the Ring itself can be explained separately froman explanation of the Evil nature of the Ring. The Ring itself is thereality of Evil in the physical world. In every way, it is the nature ofevil which must be either accepted or rejected outright.
Its mere presenceis a personification of the opportunity for people to have and execute freewill and make morally correct or incorrect decisions. Also, the ring is asymbol of power, evil power. It is the part of nature that continuallystrives to destroy a persons ability to exercise free will. The exerciseof Evil, and in essence the power of the Ring, is the exact opposite offreedom. As for the nature of evil, it has been shown that no good canpossibly come from evil means, but evil results can be averted if one canacquire the evil object while resisting the evil nature of it.
Also, theRing is both real and symbolic. While the physical nature of the Ring isbehavioral, and can be physically observed, the essence or power of theRing 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 CitedCrossley-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, booknumber, chapternumber and chapter title.
)Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel. The Silmarillion. New York: Ballantine, 1995. (References to The Silmarillion are by chapter name)Works ConsultedCarter, 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. ofAlabama Press, 1979Ready, William. The Tolkien Relation. Chicago: Henry Regenery Co. , 1968.
Schlauch, Margaret. The Saga of the Volsungs. New York: W. W.
Norton & Co., 1978Category: English