Tolkien gave us a monumental tale called The Lord of The Rings, which many people have read, or at least seen at the movies. In the story are many magical places and races that hide an underlying analogy to our modern world, and human nature. This underlying analogy offers us wisdom and a choice in how to live and govern.
The ring of power is forged by Sauron; a once angelic creature, grown ugly through his use of evil. Tolkien has a consistent theme throughout his novels that evil drains the user, and eventually withers away their body and soul. Sauron forges a ring to rule them all, kept secret, for him alone. The ring’s only characteristics we learn about are its ability to turn its user invisible, prolong their life, and eventually turn them into an addicted creatin of its power.
Throughout the novel, Sauron attempts to retrieve this ring, which he lost a long time ago. We are told that with the ring, the other rings can be controlled, and Sauron’s power will magnify tremendously. Tolkien never quite spells out how the ring will do this. We are left guessing whether it would allow creation of more troops, powers of control, spells, or some other sinister force. The hint we get is that with the ring, Sauron could take physical form, as in the war with the elves. How this is vastly superior to being a giant badass eye, who knows.
The main characteristic of the ring is its ability to turn someone invisible. On the surface, this does not seem like some amazingly powerful ability, although it is often dreamed about in human culture. While invisible, the consequences of your actions cannot be felt. Invisibility grants unaccountability; no way to trace an action back to its perpetrator. If you think of everything you would do while invisible, almost none of it is good and virtuous, because then it would be better to be seen. The ring gives you the power to do as you choose, without responsibility. As Tolkien shows, this power is addictive, and highly so. Always having a way out of mistakes, or a way to nudge situations in your favor, is obviously tantalizing in a world of conflict.
In the story, Boromir recognizes this power immediately. Boromir lives in a world of arrows, steel, troop numbers, and quick decisions: a very real world with very real consequences. He recognizes that a way around these consequences would quickly and drastically change his life, and those who follow him. With the ring, he could easily take Osgiliath, and then Mordor, solving all the problems that the humans of Middle Earth suffer. At least that is how it seems. Gandalf intercedes; cautioning that to use the ring would cause dire consequences. As the wisest character, he knows that to cast off accountability and responsibility will never lead to the paradise imagined.
Gandalf has a controversial place in Tolkien’s novel. There is a great theory, and I am not sure where it originated, which says magic in stories, is representative of madness. Magic manipulates reality in ways that are not rational, and do not follow the laws of physics. The madman that believes he can take a bite out of the moon is not that different then the magician who can move objects in the cosmos by will alone. Gandalf has magical powers, and the reader never finds out the extent of those powers. Sometimes he is chanting and casting vast energies around, other times he appears weak and frail, barely able to defeat his opponents with a sword. Why did Gandalf not simply magic the ring to Mount Doom? Or fly it on an eagle like those that picked up the hobbits after they trudged it there? Gandalf is mysteriously powerful, unpredictable, and weak all at the same time. You could easily describe a madman this way, yet Gandalf seems wise, and possesses self-knowledge.
In the first book of the trilogy, we get a glimpse that Gandalf may know he is mad. When he is offered the ring, he refuses it. He rightly comments on the horrible things he would do with the ring, even while trying to do good. If Boromir gained unaccountability, the damage he could do would be large. Gandalf, a madman, would cause much more suffering. Gandalf plays with the madness of the ethers, not simple steel tools.
Gollum is also worth examining in relation to the ring. He has possessed the ring of power the longest of the mortals. He also gives us the best example of what the ring can do to its user. He has invisibility to become rich, famous, or powerful. Yet he is a wretched creature, living in a cave, talking to himself, in the easiest recognizable case of madness in the whole trilogy. Gollum is what happens long term to users of the ring, and easily shows the folly of Boromir’s proposition to use it for good.
Gollum’s life is completely miserable. His body is abused; he eats refuge and other rotted trash. When he has the ring, he recognizes the power it gives him. He has nothing left of any value except the ring. With the ring, the situations of his life do not matter to him. With the power of unaccountability, the state of his life fades to the background. When he loses the ring, the brunt of his situation falls on him, and his self-hatred paints a vile contrast to any of the other characters. A life lived between addictive illusions of power and self-hatred is hell itself.
The last ability of the ring that we see is its ability to extend life. This power does not quite fit, as most people would associate living a longer life as a positive thing. A possible explanation lays in mistakes, and their consequences. In the world of kings and armies, saying the wrong thing to the wrong person, especially if true, might get you thrown in jail, or worse. The last ability of the ring represents a longer life lived by avoiding the consequences of your mistakes. Taking moral stances, accepting accountability for your actions, or challenging hypocrisy can all get your killed. However it is important to note that this long life feels “thin” as Bilbo remarks. Life extension through cowardice does not tend to sit well with most people.
Coming back to the modern world, what does the ring represent to us? What would grant us invisibility from consequences, extend our life, and become addictive over time? The answer is lies. Any lie, to another, or to yourself, gives you temporary invisibility. Any action you take can be lied about to gain you leave of responsibility. The drug addict, the thief, the vagabond; they all must lie to themselves and society to get by. The most depraved among the human race all live a life with part of their own story hidden to them.
Now we can answer the question of what Sauron would do with the ring. He would cast a web of lies over all Middle Earth. He would control the elves, the dwarves, and the men. The only law of the land would be power, his power. There would be no accountability of that power, no consequences except his whims, and above all, there would be no truth or rationality.
The story takes on new meaning when looked at this way. At the core, this is a story about humans at its root, even with all the fantastical creatures and races. Throughout the book, any of those forces could step in and help the humans against Mordor. An army of dwarves could have made things much easier. The elves help the most, but never throw their full strength into the fight. In fact many elves continue to leave Middle Earth as the conflict rages on. The eagles could massively help with transportation of the ring, but don’t. The book makes it abundantly clear that this is a human quest.
Frodo is given the ring to transport. Frodo is important because he is relatively immune to the ring. Above all, Frodo is innocent, and does not wish to gain power. Therefore the invisibility offered is only a means of escape, not self-gain. He is young, so a long life does not tempt him. His innocence protects him from the addictive quality that invisibility tantalizes with. He truly is the only one that can take the power of lies to destroy in Mount Doom. All others would hesitate or hold back.
After the ring is finally destroyed, the world moves on. The elves leave, along with Gandalf and many other figures of the past age. The world is left to humans. This represents the transition of humans from the world of the gods, demons, magic and war, to a world of rationality. Once the power of lies leaves the world, it becomes simpler. All the fantastic stories, the monumental energiesshifting around, pass away.
Humans, embracing their innocence, destroy irrationality to usher in a new age of reason. The ring of power tempts them as it travels to Mount Doom, but it eventually gets there. In the ring’s destruction, Gollum dies too. After a brief hope that he could become Sméagol once again, Gollum and his naked greed for power take over. At the end, even Frodo beings to lose his innocence and fall under the ring’s seduction. Gollum’s need to possess the ring at all costs is the only thing that destroys it. Evil is always wasteful, and self-destruction. You always hate what you lie to, eventually.
In our world, the ring of power is alive and well. Hiding facts and manipulating the truth can keep you in a position of power. Unreal demos named Terror, Risk, The Economy, and many others walk the earth. Speaking truth to power at work or in government will see you to the door, while keeping quiet will sustain you. An invisible, magical world of fiat, favors, debt, and contracts is more important than practical reality. Modern day wizards called politicians can magically transport goods and services from one place to another, enriching some while beggaring others.
Will you pick up the ring of power? It offers ease of stress and smooth sails. The ring tantalizes with what seems like a longer life. It will sustain you; keep you in a position that feels comfortable, and with minimal effort to boot. The ring will hide you from painful realities if that is your wish. You can ascribe events to randomness, chance, ill luck, or blame another. Unlike the fictional ring of power, the real ring is always there. You can always grasp it, and begin to manipulate reality, becoming a wizard. Will you give in?
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