Friday, May 9, 2014

One Ring to Rule them All: Tolkien and the Problem 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.

            The “Problem of Evil” in this world is one that has been long explored by writers, scholars and theologians alike. What is Evil, and what is Good? How can one define Evil? Is there absolute Evil? In his epic legend, The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R Tolkien takes a stab at expressing his ideas about good and evil, fair and foul.[1] This short essay is interested in exploring Tolkien’s view on good and evil, as manifested by his thoughts, description and portrayal of the One Ring, the principal object in the story’s progression. I argue that in Tolkien's eyes, the Ring is evil not only because of what it does, but also because of what it is.
            It is rather obvious to all that the Ring is an evil object – after all, if it were not evil, then there would be no need for a quest to destroy this object. Yet, less obvious is why it is an evil object. In other words, what makes the Ring evil?  In looking at the genesis, formation and original purpose of the Ring, we are given an insight into this question. In The Simarillion, “Of The Rings of Power and the Thirds Age”, Tolkien explains that Sauron created many rings, rings that were given to the different peoples of Middle Earth, with the promise that it could give them “secret power beyond the measure of their kind.[2]” Hence, behind the idea of a ring was the idea that one could have power, over creation and over others. But above all Rings was the One Ring, an object that contained much of Sauron’s strength, essence and will, which ultimately allowed him to subject and bind others and other rings “wholly” to his power. This is best seen in how the Nine Rings given to men caused these men to come under the dominion and authority of Sauron’s, eventually turning into the Nazgul, the Enemy’s most terrible servants.
Therefore, through this, we may conclude that Tolkien’s definition of Evil, at least in the context of The Lord of the Rings, is the desire and ability of one to bind and restrict the free will of others, and subject it to one’s own authority.  The evil is in the very desire and act of holding others under one’s dominion, rather than the type of dominion. Sure enough, if Sauron was to wield the Ring, his dominion would have been dark and evil. Yet, even if the wise and good Gandalf had become the Ring-Lord, this too would have been an evil. Indeed, Gandalf’s rule and reign would have been “good”, benefiting his subjects according to his wisdom. After all, his purpose for taking up the ring would be “pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good”.[3] However, despite these seemingly good intentions, to Tolkien, this is still an evil, because to him, evil is simply the restriction of one’s free will, for bad or for good. Hence, Gandalf the Ring-Lord would have “made good detestable and seem evil”, he would not be “righteous” but instead “self-righteous”, thinking that his way of life was superior to others. A benevolent dictator may be generous and benevolent, but a dictator nonetheless, and that, to Tolkien, is an evil.
Another question surrounding the Ring is this: Is it an external or internal evil? This essay argues that it is an external power of evil that draws out the latent internal evil in oneself. Ursula Guin proposes that every man has a “shadow”, defined as “the dark side of [one’s] soul, the unadmitted, the inadmissible” desires of one’s heart.[4]  The Ring is an external object that lures out our bestial side, enhancing our darker qualities, and bringing out our inherent desire to have control over others. It clearly tempts Boromir: in a moment of “madness,” he attempts to violently wrestle the Ring away from the Ringbearer, in hope that he could become the “mighty king” of Gondor, with the power of command that could drive away the hosts of Mordor and gain the glory of defeating Sauron.[5] Moreover, even a loving, humble and meek hobbit like Samwise Gamgee could be tempted. When confronted by the ring, he fantasizes and dreams of wielding command over armies, and ruling over gardens swollen with fruit. [6]
If the Ring is an external power that draws out the internal evil in oneself, can it then be resisted? Tolkien himself seems to have no clear answer to this. One on hand, he seems to suggest a certain sense of inevitability, writing in a letter that “the power of Evil in the world is not finally resistible by incarnate creatures, however ‘good’.[7]  On the other hand, he suggests that at the climax of the story at Mount Doom, Frodo ultimately chooses to give into his shadow, and claim the ring for his own.  This is made clear from how his earlier transcript initially described Frodo to have said that he “cannot” finish the quest, but later on Tolkien changed the wording to say that Frodo “chose” not to complete the task.  Jane Chance argues that Frodo was aware that ring was an internal evil requiring an internal strength to overcome it.[8] Hence, even throughout the journey before the final choice is made at Mount Doom, Frodo is constantly exercising his free will over the Ring (which desires him to put it on) or to allowing it to dominate him.
Is it possible to hold both the position that evil is inevitable and yet one still has free will over it? I do believe so. If this was a theological question, perhaps Tolkien’s position would be that one indeed has free will, but such a free will is somehow inevitably bent towards choosing evil, particularly when push comes to shove. This is exemplified by how Frodo was able to resist the evil of the ring until the moment that really counted, i.e. when he had to cast it into the fires at Mount Doom. In the same way, perhaps Tolkien’s commentary on the Evil in our world is this: While we are able to resist evil in small moments in our life, the fact that in other moments evil is still able to overcome us suggests that there is a form of latent inherent evil in mankind, which cannot be defeated by even the kindest or purest ‘good’ mortal person in the world.  This may explain why Tolkien allows Frodo to ultimately “fail” his quest. Even though he had started out of out love for the Shire and Middle Earth, as well as from a position of humility, his good work and intentions ultimately fall short. Instead, it is the undeserved “mercy” (in other words, grace) showed to Gollum by Frodo that saves the day. Ultimately, it is not the “hero” that is triumphant, but rather the “cause”.[9] In fact, the hero remains flawed – when Frodo returns to the Shire, he is restless and unable to forget what happened. Tolkien explains that this was a “last flicker of pride” in Frodo, a desire to have “returned as a Hero, not content with being a mere instrument of good.”[10]
A final word on the significance of the Ring is this – much of the discussion on its Evil has surrounded what it does (corrupt people to desire to bind and restrict free will) rather than what it is.  In one of his letters, Tolkien clearly states:

“In The Lord of The Rings, the conflict is not basically about ‘freedom’, though that is naturally involved. It is about God, and His sole right to divine honour. The Eldar and Numenoreans believed in The One, the true God and held worship of any other person an abomination. Sauron desired to be “God-King” and was held to be this by his servants; if he had been victorious he would have demanded divine honor from all rational creatures and absolute temporal power over the whole world”[11]

Hence, this suggests that to Tolkien, the ring is not evil only because of what it does, but instead, its mere existence is an evil. After all, it represents the desire of one to wrestle worship and dominion away from God. This gives us a more nuanced understanding of Tolkien’s conception of Evil – Evil is not only the desire to impose one’s will on others, but fundamentally it is the rejection of submission to God’s will, depriving him of the glory and worship he deserves. It is unsurprising then that in Tolkien’s tale, there seems to be an unnamed character and force, an unspoken guest in the room. In the words of Gandalf to Frodo, “There was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker…Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker…you were meant to have it.”[12] Behind the maker of the One Ring of power, was an even greater force at work, which desired and mysteriously nudged the Ring towards destruction. Bringing us back to the problem of Evil – if there is a God in this world that ultimately seeks to overcome Evil for His and our good, then certainly that is an “encouraging thought.”[13] 

G Zhang

[1] J.R.R Tolkien, "Letter 66," in The Letters of J.R.R Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter (Great Britain: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1995), 78-79.
[2] Christopher Tolkien, ed., J.R.R Tolkien: The Simarallion," (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001),  288.
[3] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of The Rings (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004), 61.
[4] Ursula LeGuin, "The Child and the Shadow," in The Language of the Night, 56.
[5] Tolkien, The Lord of The Rings, 398.
[6] Tolkien, The Lord of The Rings, 901.
[7] Tolkien, "Letter 191," 251-252.
[8] Jane Chance, Tolkien's Art: A Mythology for England, 2nd ed. (Lexington: the University Press of Kentucky, 2001), 156.
[9] Tolkien, "Letter 192," 252-253.
[10] Tolkien, "Letter 246," 325-333.
[11] Tolkien, "Letter 246," 238-244.
[12] LOTR p. 56
[13] p.56


  1. I am in agreement with you about your question of the possibility to “hold both the position that evil is inevitable and yet one still has free will over it.” This question reminded me of Original Sin. Under this concept, it is inevitable that humans are going to sin many times throughout their life but there are many instances where we can exercise our free will in order to choose not to sin. I think that this is exactly in line with your point of being able to resist some doses of evil but other times it is simply too much to bear. Frodo’s situation at Mount Doom is definitely one of the most prominent examples demonstrating the power of Original Sin. We basically have to expect Frodo to “fail” at this point because he has pretty much overcome sin throughout his entire quest. If Frodo had simply destroyed the Ring without any difficulties, then he would have essentially beat Original Sin and therefore surpassed everyone else in Middle Earth and have more of a divine nature. Through Frodo’s “failure”, Tolkien is reminding us that the human nature contains inevitable flaws, but decisions made using our free will either previously or at that instant can affect our ability to overcome those flaws.

    --Will Long

    1. To continue off of this thought, I would expand it to not only Original Sin, but all sin. Taking a theological approach, we all have free will, and yet we still sin and we in fact *cannot* refrain from all sin through our entire lives. It is impossible for man to not sin on this earth upon which it was introduced by the Original Sin of Adam and Eve. I think Tolkien is exploring here how Frodo, on this journey is continuously tempted to sin, and rarely gives in, but in the end, he (by extension, we) cannot choose against taking the Ring. As you said, this would have given him a "divine" quality. And thus it must be something else, in the end that destroys the ring. Evil must be conquered by something other than one character's choice, for, as in our world, sin cannot be completely avoided in the end.

  2. I think it would make much more sense to say that Frodo chose to give up his quest. We have plenty of evidence throughout The Lord of the Rings to firmly say that the one ring affects people in different ways depending on their internal strength and fortitude. Men, who are weaker than most, for instance, are corrupted much more easily than hobbits or elves. However, everyone has their limit. Frodo’s innate goodness could only take him so far. At the edge of Mount Doom, when confronted with the blunt reality of losing the ring and its power forever, Frodo elects to keep the ring for himself. This does not make him evil or weak. It just means he was not strong enough to overcome the most mortal desire for power. Whether the average elf could commit the final act is unknown, but, for mortal beings, the ring seems to promise the power that is so often desired. To throw away the ring is to let go honestly and completely of that desire, which is an almost impossible task. The fact that the ring is only destroyed when Eru trips Gollum, causing him to fall in the lava, might demonstrate that only something as pure as God himself could have the fortitude to destroy the ring and overcome that lust for power. That may be however because God is already all powerful, and the ring could not offer him something he did not already possess.
    -Elliott Snyder

  3. While reading your post, the quote you provide on the promise that Sauron gives to the ring bearers that the rings would give them “secret power beyond the measure of their kind,” really caught my eye. In the context of your analysis, particularly later on in your post, it lead me to have a different conception of evil in LOTR than was discussed in class. That is that what we arrived to in class was that evil basically came down to the enslavement of free will. You however state that “Evil is no only the desire to impose one’s will on others, but fundamentally it is the rejection of God’s will, depriving him of the glory and worship he deserves.” With the first quote that caught my eye along with Tolkien’s explanation that you cite stating, “In The Lord of The Rings, the conflict is not basically ‘freedom’, though that s naturally involved. It is about God, and His sole right to divine honour,” I would agree that you are much closer to describing evil in LOTR, but I would also suggest a slightly different interpretation based on those two quotes.

    Instead of evil being the loss/lack of honoring God for his power, I would instead interpret that evil is the wish or desire to rise above your assigned lot, the wish to reach “beyond the measure of your kind.” A desire to have power over others and the search for that power comes from a concept that you deserve that power, that you are in some ways better than others, are more capable than them, that you are more than the lot you were assigned. It is a challenge of god’s will and of his design. The strive to be greater I would argue is the concept of evil in LOTR. After all, you can still wish to honor god while hoping to rise in power and control of other’s freedom, but that will, just as it would be in the case of Gandalf, would ultimately be a corrupted form of honor. You would still be ignoring god’s original design, deigning instead to think that you knew better, that your lot was below your deserve. It is not depriving god of worship, although that is often a side effect of this striving. Evil is instead as Tolkien said, “the rejection of God’s will,” the rejection of god’s design and your place within it.


  4. I think it’s particularly interesting that in class most of what we addressed regarded the defeat of or submission to the Ring and Evil in general. In the OP you mentioned the ‘genesis, formation and original purpose of the Ring’, though in service to the aforementioned discussion. But if we say, as you suggested at the end of your argument, that it takes the intervention of God and nothing less to finally defeat the power of the Ring, what does that say about its origin? Does it take an ultimate and divinity-level force of evil to create such an object or can what amounts to the most powerful evil in Middle-Earth have a less celestial source? If the latter; then where is the line between creatures capable of creating pure evil and the rest of us? If any such line exists. It’s a rather depressing portrait of humanity if we all have that terrible potential within us.

    I honestly don’t know whether Tolkien intends to intimate that we all have that level of evil within us, in addition to suggesting that our ultimate fate being to succumb to evil, or not. However, I think we’ve done a good job of establishing that there are no creatures short of God capable of defeating evil, so the next question should be which creatures are capable of creating it?

    --H. Goldberg