Copyright 29 March 2002 David Ethan Kennerly.


Understanding the Ring


During Christmas 2001, the box office became home to a unique production: The Lord of the Rings. This eagerly awaited film flowed from the famous fantasy novel with the same name.  Most viewers were not aware how deeply its author, J.R.R. Tolkien, influenced popular culture and ethics. Behind the façade of elves and orcs is a potent parable for our time, a parable about a ring, a parable about the nature of evil. 

On the surface of popular culture, Tolkien is the grandfather of modern fantasy (Feist 7).  He launched the modern fantasy genre's popular success by becoming the first best-selling international fantasy author (Feist 15). He grew to American pop culture as a counter-culture in the 1960s and 1970s (Feist 15). This success launched the fantasy industry (Feist 16, Shippey xxv).  Bloom marked Tolkien as a period piece, limited only to 1960s (Anderson 137), but he was wrong.  Tolkien continued; he launched the fantasy gaming industry that grew to a multi-million dollar genre in the computer gaming industry by the 1990s.  Tolkien's legacy spread to animated movies in the 1970s, and a record-breaking budget film trilogy at the beginning of the Twenty-First Century (Anderson 148). 

Almost every elf or orc depicted today traces its lineage to Tolkien.  Not only did he create the half-sized hobbit; he defined the popular concept of the elf (Tolkien 164), the dwarf, the goblin (Tolkien 171), the orc (Shippey 88, Tolkien 171), the wraith (Shippey 122, 146), and many more.  For the Oxford professor of English Language and Medieval Literature, the appearance of these archetypes was not enough.  He defined their languages (Tolkien 155), culture, history, legends, and mythology.

Late Twentieth Century fantasy authors attempted to rekindle the fantasy moment that briefly lived in their own hearts as they read Tolkien (King).  Tolkien inspired millions of fantasy readers and gamers.  For example, Tolkien directly and indirectly inspired Dungeons & Dragons® (TSR 62), which is a cultural bell-weather and encyclopedia of popular fantasy.  Not only did he directly inspire D&D®'s setting, characters, and plots, but he inspired other authors who then also directly inspired the original fantasy game milieu.  He inspired many readers to become fantasy authors (Feist 8-13), such as Douglas Anderson, Raymond E. Feist, Ursula Le Guin, George R.R. Martin, and Terry Pratchett (Meditations).

To only state that Tolkien created modern fantasy limits his scope too much. He rekindled the folktale for the Twentieth Century.  His work on The Lord of the Rings, which spanned about two decades from the late Thirties to early Fifties, is a painstakingly crafted folktale.  He continued the tradition, which he had studied and taught for decades.  Yet he did more than make a modern Beowulf.  He told an original tale—using the tools of the tradition—that uniquely applied to the Twentieth Century (Shippey 112).  It is at once modern and immortal; there had never been anything quite like it before or since.  In one lifetime, Tolkien created a mythology that is comparable to pantheons of entire cultures such as the Greek mythos, Arthurian mythos, or the Catholic mythos. 

Although some Christian fanatics have abhorred the products of the fantasy genre, ironically Tolkien was Catholic (Shippey 150).  Tolkien bore the burden of a tremendous contradiction: his faith and his study.  He believed in the Catholic mythos, yet he studied several a pagan tale.  He understood the importance of the old tales, such as Beowulf and the Arthurian legends.  He recognized, not unlike Joseph Campbell, the importance of the myth.  He then reconciled seeming opposites: the Catholic and the Pagan.  He continued the hidden tradition of great reconcilers before him, such as the author of Beowulf, who reconciled the agrarian Catholic and the agrarian Pagan (Shippey 181).  The Lord of the Rings is at once Christian and Pagan for an Industrial Age (Shippey 175).

Tolkien viewed his work as a subcreation, because the only Creator was the Catholic God.  He derived Middle-Earth, the setting for his tales, from old sources such as the Norse setting of earthly adventure, Midgard (Tolkien 189).  It was not a separate earth.  It was this Earth, only in an earlier age, which is a device common to fairy tales that has the cliché, "Once upon a time . . ." (Campbell 1).  In his subcreation, Middle-Earth, he carefully avoided depicting any artifact of religion, "for the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism" (Tolkien qtd. Shippey 175). 

On this canvas, he paints pagan virtue (Shippey 147), which foreshadows the parable of the Ring.  Tolkien revived the old hero and some old virtues.  Like pagan heroes, Tolkien's heroes are courageous, even in the face of despair (Shippey 187).  The Christian mythos had made incorruptible courage almost extinct. Few heroes like Beowulf survived.  Few tales of unrewarded courage remained. In the Norse mythos no eternal paradise rewarded to the hero, as it did in the Christian mythos.  According to Norse myths, the Doomsday, Ragnarok will come and all heroes will lose (Shippey 150).  This contradicts the Christian view of a life eternal for the righteous. This, then, contradicts the Christian hero, such as Christ, who sacrifices his flesh for the eternal reward of the righteous.  For the Christian, there is a carrot dangled at an infinite distance; whereas, for the pagan there is none (Shippey 150).  Despite despair the pagan hero struggles, because of the virtue of Courage.  Shippey wrote on Courage:


"[V]ictory or defeat have nothing to do with right and wrong, and that even if the universe is controlled beyond redemption by hostile and evil forces, that is not enough to make a hero change sides" (Shippey 150). 



This was the pre-Machiavellian hero, who did not focus on the end, but focused on the mean: his Courage.  Tolkien's heroes, such as Frodo, Gimli, Aragorn, and Gandalf, remain true in the face of despair (Shippey 151).  His villains, such as Saruman, fall prey to opportunism in the face of certain doom. 

Tolkien commented on the symbolism of The Lord of the Rings: "[T]he religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism" (qtd. Shippey 175).  Oscar Wilde wrote in his preface to A Portrait of Dorian Gray, "All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their own peril.  Those who go beneath the symbol, do so at their own peril." Let us tempt this wisdom and glimpse beneath the surface, and behind the core symbol of The Lord of the Rings.  We will not be the first, so let us heed our forerunners' maps and leap over the chasms that others have slipped into. 

Tolkien had to tell a folktale with a new mythology, because the medieval myths inadequately described the nature of evil (Shippey 121).  The Medieval myths failed to apply: the old tale of a static good side and an evil side wore thin to witnesses of World War I, World War II, the swift corruption and holocausts of Germany, the USSR, and elsewhere.  Twentieth century authors, such as Joseph Conrad, George Orwell, and Kurt Vonnegut, addressed this modern horror (Shippey 115, 121).  In Heart of Darkness, Conrad's enigmatic Kurtz summed it up in his final, whispered words, "The horror, the horror" (qtd. Shippey 128).  Perhaps Conrad, by way of Kurtz, was describing the horror of modern warfare, and more fundamentally, the horror of power.  Kurtz escaped horror of modern slaughter only to erect his own mini-empire of slaughter. Why did Kurtz repeat the horror he escaped?  Lord Acton would have said, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Great men are almost always bad men . . ." (qtd. Shippey 115). 

Tolkien agreed (Shippey 115).  He was a British officer in World War I and a witness to the industrialization of his beloved English countryside (Shippey 167).  His masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings illustrates that,


[E]vil accompanies a desire for power. The central question posed in the book is a moral one: What does the possibility of unlimited power do to the one who desires it, even to the one who desires it for good ends? And the answer is unequivocal: The desire for power corrupts (Perkins and Hill 57).



In a Medieval tale, perhaps there would have been a Ring of Power that must be delivered to the Good King and kept out of the hands of the Evil King.  A Christian parable might be similar.  But they both would miss a key point of the nature of evil.  Once the Good King has the Ring of Power, he will, by degree, become an Evil King.  Therefore, Tolkien's quest was not to deliver a Ring to the proper King, but to destroy the Ring forever. 

Let us be clear that power here is political power, not physical power or spiritual power, and is not just the ability to do work, as it is in physics.  It is, for Acton and us, the ability to coerce others.  Power is the ability to forcefully control the lives of others. 

Power leads to corruption, because power is addictive (Shippey 119).  In the tale, the Ring has the power to make its wearer invisible.  Thus, the person has the ability to see without being seen.  He has the ability to act without being detected.  Reciprocity glues communities together. Tit-for-tat: An eye for an eye, and a kindness for a kindness (Axelrod). At first power is used for good, but it is the one-way road to addiction.  At first an addiction is used for a real benefit.  A cigarette smoker achieves mental alertness; a cocaine user achieves a new perspective (King). Political power could be used for some real benefit at first.  But like other addictions it will degenerate.  It will cut corners until all that remains is the addiction itself, the power in this case. It cuts a corner here for the sake of a greater return later.  But the corruption overwhelms the ends sought, because evil does not limit itself (Scheps 49). 

Elrond said, "For nothing is evil in the beginning" (Tolkien qtd. Perkins and Hill 59). Saruman is a semi-power possessed technocrat; he has "Sandyman's disease" (Shippey 170), which is an addiction to intellectual power (Shippey 171). Saruman began good.  Saruman unwittingly traded goodness for power (Perkins and Hall 62). The Ring-wraiths also began good. They traded goodness for power (Perkins and Hall 60). The despicable Gollum began as a good hobbit, Smeagol.  Yet he fell.  The ring corrupts even Frodo (Perkins and Hall 66). 

One underlying moral of The Lord of the Rings is that forcefully controlling the lives of others cannot be exercised for Good, even if founded on Good intentions.  It will always slide into Evil practices. Agrarian, Industrial, and post-industrial idealists argued on the ideal government.  Each one began from the dangerous supposition that he had control of the government.  Plato placed himself, or someone similar to himself, as king of the ideal government in The Republic.  Marx placed someone like himself as joint-controller of the government.  Ayn Rand placed figures with her beliefs in control of the world.  Culture continues to encourage this exercise today.  Adults encourage young adults to envision a utopia and what its proper rules ought to be, given one has the power to set them.  Yet this is a plan for disaster. Elrond said, "For nothing is evil in the beginning" (Tolkien qtd. Perkins and Hill 59). No one can resist the temptation to exercise power for power's sake. 

It is not that the ideals are somehow flawed.  Plank unduly restricted Tolkien's message to Fascism when he wrote on the Scouring of the Shire (110). Besides the general fact that Tolkien avoided allegory (Shippey 161) and that Tolkien traced this specific event to his childhood (Shippey 166), it is categorically wrong to suppose that evil is traceable back to a particular ideology, which Plank does.  Any ideology, any ideal, obeys the natural law that power corrupts.  It does not matter if it begins as Socialist, Capitalist, Communist, Fascist, Imperial, Feudal, Republic, Democratic, or Humanitarian. Plank was correct in stating, "the purpose of government is plainly to maintain, consolidate, and expand its own power" (Plank 110). Thus, any government gravitates toward evil (Shippey 117). 

The Twentieth Century, and the dawn of the Twenty-First Century, needs this lesson.  Instead of seeking how power can be ideally used, the world should focus on becoming wary of power.  Tolkien warns us, by way of Gandalf, "Do not tempt me! For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself. Yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good" (Tolkien qtd. Perkins and Hall 63).  Although his intentions begin pure, Gandalf too would be corrupted; he would be addicted to power.  Nor should one trust power in the hands of the gentle. Galadriel says, "In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible ... All shall love me and despair" (Tolkien qtd. Perkins and Hall 64)!  She is ideal beauty and love.  Yet this power will corrupt her, too. 

In Animal Farm, Orwell depicted the factory-workers who intended to equalize profits at the Turn of the Century that led to a totalitarian state that murdered millions by the middle of the Century.  But Orwell did not write generally enough; he wrote an allegory for the USSR.  Although Orwell believed in the general evil of government, he wrote a parable for one nation at one time in the Twentieth Century.  Tolkien wrote a myth that applies to all Western civilizations in the Twentieth and, perhaps, Twenty-First Century.  No matter who, no matter why, once one has control, he, she, it, or they will become evil.  Power is an evil addiction to which no one is immune. 

Works Cited

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