LOTR--The Books This Time--The Ring


THE RING

In his excellent book, J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, Tom Shippey tackles Tolkien's use of evil. He makes the valid and fascinating point that Tolkien treads a line between Boethian and Manichaean views of evil, between a view of evil as coming from inside us (humans create evil through their bad desires and choices) versus coming from outside us (goodness and badness are in eternal and external conflict; every person has to pick a side).

Shippey points out that Tolkien deliberately trends a line between these two views. Tolkien's approach isn't clumsy; rather, he uses the inherent tension between the two views to reflect on the human condition--because sometimes the badness we face is the result of our choices and sometimes the badness we face seems to come from something external, bigger than our simple, petty selves.

Shippey also tackles critics' arguments over Tolkien's use of the one ring, pointing out that it is not simplistic magic. He proposes the metaphor of "addiction" to explain how the ring works throughout Tolkien's trilogy.

I agree that addiction is a good metaphor for the ring's effects--with a caveat. I think it comes down to addiction + ambition.

The addiction element is definitely at work: the more the ring is used, the more it enslaves its owner; it engenders "cravings"; the closer it gets to its "source" (think stash), the stronger the cravings and more concentrated the dose. Consequently, the ring has less effect in the Shire than it does in Gondor.

But the intrinsic character of the user, specifically regarding ambition, is a major factor. Bilbo, after all, uses the ring quite often in both The Hobbit* and before he gives it away in The Lord of the Rings (Meriadoc learns about the ring years before Frodo inherits it; he saw Bilbo use it to escape encountering the Sackville-Baggineses!). 
Bilbo's protection/immunity is that he exhibits zero interest in running anything: a dwarf company, village, town, kingdom . . . He additionally demonstrates a complete readiness to hand over his "estate" to Frodo when the time comes--only giving up the ring proves difficult.

In other words, Bilbo is the ultimate Libertarian-mind-my-own-business-leave-me-to-my-hobbies kind of guy. Consequently, the ring has little power over him. He is the only person other than Sam (who is quite similar in personality) to give up the ring voluntarily.

In fact, Bilbo's disinterest in politics/power/anything much except food, his book, and his nephew reminds me of a passage in The Screwtape Letters: the devil Screwtape complains to Wormwood that a man can protect himself against the temptations of high society vanity and pompousness by a simple taste for liver and onions. I have been similarly protected against literary snobbery throughout my educational career by a taste for children's lit, mysteries, and romances; I'd rather read supposed tacky, simple books for my own enjoyment than grand prose for others' prestige.

Gandalf, troubled: the ring is THAT ring.
Addiction + character explains why Gandalf so resolutely refuses to even touch the ring. And why Galadriel, after a struggle, refuses it so graciously.

Because both of these people are, let's face it, ambitious. Gandalf is part of the Wizard's Council; at one point, Galadriel wanted him to be its head, and Gandalf appears to have been willing. He certainly doesn't balk when Galadriel finally, definitively, clads him in White (symbolizing that he has now taken Saruman's place at the head of the Council)! He does mingle with hobbits. He also mingles with kings and stewards to whom he gives solicited and unsolicited advice. 

Galadriel, as Tolkien's extra notes make clear, is a rather restless person. Generations before the events in LOTR, she left the Undying Lands voluntarily (it is not hard to imagine Galadriel, like Cordelia in heaven, proclaiming, "I'm so bored!"--right before she got on the ship for Middle Earth). She wears one of the three Elf rings. She was not entirely opposed to the dwarfs occupying Moria.  This is not a lady who would ever be satisfied with a "little" life.

Give either one of these very good people the ring and instant addiction-to-power. So they refrain: if only more politically-minded people showed such restraint!

The point with Galadriel and Gandalf is that leadership and ambition are not by themselves evil . . .

RATHER . . .

The ring does greater harm to those with worldly ambitions. 

Its corruption is inevitable since unchecked and unbalanced, the desire to get ahead can become a demand for respect, then for compliance, then for domination, followed by an obsessive need to enforce a particular vision or plan  "for the good of others" no matter what the cost.

Some LOTR philosophers argue that a truly perfect being or at least one entirely without ambition--like Tom Bombadil--could never be corrupted by the ring. Possibly. But most of Middle Earth is filled with beings who behave like, well, people. Whether it be "original sin" or the "natural man," the desire to bonk YOU on the head for the sake of MY PRECIOUS will eventually overcome any fellow feeling. Even Bilbo only gives up the ring at Gandalf's insistence. (Bilbo's lack of lasting corruption is where free-will comes in--as well as Gandalf's refusal to take the ring by force.)

The ring's insidious nature is necessary to Tolkien's plot. The entire trilogy rests on the belief that the ring is bad and MUST be destroyed. If the ring can corrupt such good and noble beings as Gandalf and Galadriel, the author must be telling the truth.

The Latest Movie  
Spoilers ahead!

*Jackson, of course, has to be more focused in how he uses the ring, especially if he wants The Hobbit movies to dovetail with The Lord of the Rings movies. Consequently, in The Desolation of Smaug, the ring does begin to corrupt Bilbo.

While in Mirkwood, Bilbo momentarily loses the ring. When it is stepped on by a big insect (not a spider), he goes berserk, attacking the non-offensive insect with unrelenting viciousness (I've seen the movie twice now; the insect only steps on the ring; it doesn't head for it).

After the insect is dead, Bilbo leans over, picks up the ring and says to the dead creature, "Mine!"

He then collapses--at which point, Freeman demonstrates what an amazing actor he can be: in a few moments, simply through his mobile face, he takes Bilbo from self-satisfaction to exhausted relief to utter bewilderment ("Was that me?") and finally to flabbergasted horror. Unlike everyone else in the movies, including Frodo, Bilbo looks at the ring with disgust. The ring is so not who he is, he makes the connection and is revolted.

Throughout the remainder of this second film, Bilbo shows hesitation about using the ring. He will, if necessary. But he is less enamored of it than he was before (although he doesn't get rid of it).

It is powerful acting and storytelling. Kudos to Freeman and Jackson!

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