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Essay/Term paper: Philosophy and fantasy

Essay, term paper, research paper:  English Papers

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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 Tolkien"s 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 ring"s 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 Tolkien"s 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 Tolkien"s 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.

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 Manwë 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 into that 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 Sauron"s possession until it was taken by Isildur

after Sauron"s 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 Sauron"s 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 Ring"s 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

Sauron"s 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. Sauron"s power lies in control and dominion, and the

deprivation of free will. One example of Sauron"s power reflected in LotR

is in Gollum, whose pitiful condition is the result of Sauron"s 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 Tolkien"s 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 Sauron"s 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 Ring"s 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

Gollum…but 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 Ring"s power, and it eventually

results in his madness. The Ring preys upon Boromir"s 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. Aragorn"s words following Boromir"s 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 Frodo"s 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

reader"s understanding of the Ring as well as Frodo"s. There is an

interesting parallel here, concerning an issue which will be expanded on at

a later point, a parallel between Frodo"s individual struggle with

temptation on the summit and Christ"s 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


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 Ring"s 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 Ring"s 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. Gollum"s 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 Gollum"s intervention. At

the last moment, in the heart of Sauron"s 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 would"ve 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 Otter"s 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 Ring"s symbolic significance will be reached.

The Myth of Otter"s 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 Otter"s 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 Andvari"s finger, and demands it as well. A conflict

emerges from this demand, and eventually Loki gets the ring, along with

Andvari"s curse upon it and the gold. Loki returns, and they give the gold

to the family and cover Otter"s 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 Grundy"s 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 Otter"s 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 Tolkien"s

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 Ring"s 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

Christ"s resurrection. Also, Gandalf"s 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 person"s 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 Tolkien"s 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:


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: Tolkien"s 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


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