My name is Maïmouna Diallo I am currently studying in the Law, Society and Justice profile. I am an avid reader and chronic over-thinker, and my interests range from topics such as international issues to movie fan-theories. Although I’m considering a career in law, I hope I also will be able to pursue writing in my free time. In writing this essay, I hoped to demonstrate the depth of Tolkien’s portrayal of good and evil. This prominent theme can, unfortunately, be discarded as being simplistic because of the Disney-like associations found in the text.
One Ring to Corrupt Them All: Power, Perversion, and Evil in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings
By Maïmouna Diallo
J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings attends to a perception of Good and Evil that may, at first, appear overly simplistic. On the surface, there is a clear delimitation between the sides and it is clear who the reader should be rooting for. Darkness is synonymous with wickedness and foulness, while fairness is ideal. Orcs, loathsome and brutish as they are, should be detested, but Elves, light and proud, are ideal beings. This demarcation, so straightforward that it is almost childish, detracts from the portrayal of the conflicting themes in Tolkien’s work. Good and bad are distinguishable, but there is no inherent evil. Tolkien goes on to show that power corrupts good and that it twists good intentions so that they lose their nature. Power, in The Lord of the Rings, is represented by the One Ring. The notion that power has an influence over morality can be seen in the way the ring affects the wearers and is further supported by the characters’ refusal to take the ring when Frodo offers it, demonstrating that succumbing to power is the result of weakness, and not basic nature.
The few people who, other than the Dark Lord Sauron, possessed the One Ring, exhibit peculiar behavior that can be linked to the power it represents, and the manner with which it affects previously good individuals. Gollum, when still known as Sméagol, turned on his friend at the mere sight of the ring. He tried to justify why he should get to keep the ring, and, upon his companion’s refusal, turned on his friend and strangled him. There is no indication that Sméagol was of egregious character before seeing the ring, and his first encounter with it turned him into a murderer. Frodo too, during his group’s encounter with the barrow-wights, briefly considers abandoning Sam, Merry, and Pippin, and using the ring to do so. Turning his back on family members so that he might save his skin can be attributed to the ring’s effect on him. The way the ring quickly gains control of individuals is also related to the corruption that power brings. Isildur, at the battle of Dagorlad, cut the ring from Sauron’s hand and, despite the advice of others including Elrond, chose to keep it. Already standing at the Black Gate of Mordor, it would have been possible for Isildur to throw it into Orodruin and destroy it at once. He, however, stated that “this [the ring], I will have as weregild for my father, and my brother” (Tolkien 243). The fact that Isildur considers the piece of jewelry reasonable restitution for his parent’s death, while interesting on its own, also relates to the change caused by the ring. Aragorn’s ancestor tried to legitimize his ownership of the ring. Already, he felt the need to rationalize and explain why he deserved to have it, behavior that both Gollum and Bilbo also exhibit. The former tried to convince his cousin that he should have it as a birthday present, and the latter lied about its presence when first asked about it. The ring, just like power once it touches individuals, keeps its hooks in those who have borne it. Once taken by it, they remain changed. Gollum remains a wretched thing after Bilbo wins the ring. He does not move along with his existence. Instead, he hopes to find it, following Frodo, and later on the fellowship, as indicated by a few mentions of his presence. The ring, or power, becomes an obsession. Bilbo, when he meets Frodo in Rivendell, asks to see the ring again and the exchange leads to the impression that “a shadow … [has] fallen between them” (232). Bilbo still feels some attachment towards the ring after giving it to his nephew, and a distance is created between the two family members, so much so that Frodo sees Bilbo differently. The core of the young Hobbit’s being changes.
In the Fellowship of the Ring, the first book of The Lord of the Rings, Frodo offers the responsibility of bearing the ring to several others he believes are worthier than he. As soon as the hobbit learns of its true nature, he offers it to Gandalf, who then refuses it by exclaiming that “with that power, I should have power too great and terrible. And over me, the Ring would gain a power still greater and more deadly. […] The way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for the weakness and the desire of strength to do good” (61). Gandalf acknowledges that he would have good intentions, powered by pity, but that the ring would ultimately twist his ways and detract him from a righteous path. Aragorn, too, has the opportunity to seize the ring, and while Frodo does not offer it to him directly he still could have taken it. “I could kill you. And I could have killed you already without so much talk. If I was after the Ring, I could have it–NOW!” he tells Frodo after his trustworthiness is challenged (171). At the Council of Elrond, it is shown that Aragorn understands the evil nature of the ring, and the way it would affect seemingly pure intentions. In Lothlórien, the hobbit also extends the ring to Lady Galadriel who admits that “the evil that was devised long ago works on in many ways,” and that by giving her the Ring, “(i)n place of dark Lord, you [Frodo] will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night. […] All shall love me and despair!” (366, 367). Lady Galadriel recognizes that the Ring of power has an effect over intent. These three characters, admittedly stronger and wiser than most, all refuse the ring and what it represents because they understand that, whatever pure intentions they would initially have when using the ring to achieve their ideal, they would inevitably fall prey to its influence and see their goals twisted and transformed into something evil.
Tolkien presents submission to the influence of power as the result of a weakness, instead of a basic, intrinsic characteristic that simply exists in certain individuals. Saruman is a strong example of such a transformation. The White Wizard, before proclaiming himself to be of “Many Colours” (259), was considered to be good. It happens that Saruman joins Sauron’s side and attempts to convince Gandalf to join him. “As the Power grows, its proved friends will also grow; and the Wise, such as you and I, may with patience come at last to direct its courses and control it” (259), Saruman claims in his plea to the Grey Wizard. He believes he will control the Power he speaks of and fails to understand that it will control him instead. It is through weakness, in a way, that he succumbs to the belief that he will be able to wield the ring. As Elrond puts it, “It is perilous to study too deeply the arts of the Enemy, for good or for ill,” because it can cause one to begin to see the way of the Enemy and believe that it is the right one (265). Saruman the Wise’s weakness is that he thinks himself capable of controlling power. The race of Men is also described as being weaker, for they are the only ones who use the rings given by Sauron and subsequently became his servants. The dwarven kings and elven lords were able to resist the temptation Sauron offered in the shape of the ring, but the men are unable to resist it. This follows the rationale that it is a weakness to want power at all costs, and that the wise know better than to try to obtain too much of it.
Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring adds a subtlety to the somewhat simplistic notion of good and evil. Evil is not a natural state and is instead brought on by some sort of perversion. This perversion can occur when power corrupts a being. Power becomes addictive. Just like the addiction following the sampling of a drug for the first time, the Ring manages to corrupt many with its mere existence. Its sight darkens the heart and owning it, wearing it, destroys the self and the good within. Tolkien’s observation is not without basis, as we can see several instances in our times when people who get a taste of power begin craving more of it, and eventually refuse to relinquish the influence they acquire. To put it simply, power gets into people’s minds. Quite frequently, Tolkien describes the presence of evil as a shadow passing through. It could be said that power, in vast amounts, corrupts and blocks Good, creating a shadow, just as an obstruction of light creates a shadow. There is no natural Evil in beings, only the perversion of their desires.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Lord of the Rings. Harper Collins Publishers, 2004.