Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
I am going to postulate something in this essay that I think we moved off of too easily in our discussion on Wednesday. We discussed the One Ring as a weapon, giving power to its wielder. They can become invisible; they can bend the will of others to their own; they would be able to bind the other Rings of Power and control them. While these things are all possible because of the Ring, I do not think that it is proper to refer to it as a weapon. Andúril is a weapon. Andúril, as much as it is a symbol of the king restored, is only a tool Aragorn uses to fight and kill armed opponents; it grants no skills or new abilities. The Ring is not wielded in the same sense. It has a power of its own, an agency even, that Andúril does not have; it is not quite as inanimate as it appears.
I think it is actually better to think of the Ring as a character. Consider this description of the Ring and its maker, which Gandalf gives to Frodo: “For he made that Ring himself, it is his, and he let a great part of his own former power pass into it, so that he could rule all the others.” The One Ring contains the greater part of Sauron’s essence, the greater part of his being. This is how it is able to act of its own volition; its agency is derived from the fact that it is Sauron, in a certain sense. It might have a lower level of consciousness, and not be able to ‘think’ in the manner of a person; but its consciousness might merely be limited by its physical form, leaving it only capable of general intuition and few actions. As Gandalf noted about the Ring’s time with Bilbo: “It did not seem always of the same size or weight; it shrank or expanded in an odd way, and might suddenly slip off a finger where it had been tight.” The Ring-as-entity (the conscious being, as opposed to the Ring-as-object, the physical gold band) might then be able to ‘decide’ to leave its bearer, as it does in The Hobbit when it falls out of Gollum’s pouch, but it can do little more than that of its own accord. The Ring-entity is still very powerful, however; powerful in the sense of bending other’s wills towards its own. This is, of course, its chief method of interacting with others, and is repeated over and over again in the texts so many times that I won’t bore you with examples.
If we accept that the Ring is its own consciousness, then, is the implication that there are two Saurons, the Ring-entity as well as the Eye in Barad-dûr? Perhaps. There is a certain logic to that conclusion; and one might also consider the imagery of the Eye within the Ring, as seen in Tolkien’s original artwork for The Fellowship of the Ring. I do believe, however, that the entities are separate and distinct in the end. The Ring-entity has its own mind, its own individual will. In some instances, it seems to have the desire to return to its master; the use of this term is, indeed, instructive by itself, as it implies the Ring is the servant of the Dark Power and not his equal or equivalent. At other times, however, notably in its interactions with Gandalf and Galadriel, it would appear to welcome a new Dark Power.
The discussion thus far has interesting implications for the ways we can think about the destruction of the Ring. In Sammath Naur, Frodo claims the Ring for himself, telling Sam he “chooses” not to destroy it and instead to take the Ring as his own. Obviously, this is an evil act; Frodo, at this point, failed in his quest to destroy the Ring and end Sauron’s power forever. But, considering the power of the Ring-entity to influence or even control others, I have some doubts about whether Frodo was truly able to exercise free will and commit this act of evil. If there is a Ring-entity with a consciousness and a will of its own, the maybe the way it works is by possessing the bearer; consider, for example, this moment, when Frodo, Sam and Gollum traverse the Morgul Vale:
Frodo felt his sense reeling and his mind darkening. Then suddenly, as if some force were at work other than his own will, he began to hurry, tottering forward, his groping hands held out, his head lolling from side to side… He fought the desire that was on him to run up the gleaming road towards its gate. At last, with an effort he turned back, and as he did so, he felt the Ring resisting him, dragging at the chain about his neck; and his eyes too, as he looked away, seemed for the moment to have been blinded.
Here, Frodo is rendered incapable of moving from will to action; his agency appears to have been removed. In this case, the responsibility for the act (and, in fact, any act caused by the Ring-entity) belongs to, at final analysis, Sauron, as the maker of the Ring-entity. As much as texts are open to interpretations other than the author’s, this seems to me to be an unacceptable understanding of events. Eliminating personal responsibility for evil would completely subvert Tolkien’s conception of good and evil. We are meant to draw a distinction between Boromir and Aragorn during the Fellowship, where the former tries to take the Ring from Frodo while the latter refuses it. Boromir commits evil; Aragorn does not. To take away Boromir’s responsibility for the breaking of the Fellowship would be to destroy the entire meaning of his act.
So, if we can’t (or won’t) say that the Ring-entity possessed Frodo and usurped his agency, how then to think about what happened in Sammath Naur? After our discussion on Wednesday, I think it is useful to conceptualize it in terms of Le Guin’s shadows. They act out the minds’ darker intuitions; they are the embodiment of the darkness within our minds. It is notable that Sauron is often referred to as the Shadow in LotR; it gives the strong implication that Sauron is intended to be understood as the embodiment of evil within Middle-Earth. Each character appears, in this analysis, to have their own shadow, made tangible in another character: Aragorn and the Witch-king, Gandalf and Saruman, Théoden and Denethor, Frodo and Gollum.
It might thus be said that Frodo’s claiming of the Ring was the triumph of his mental shadow, its ultimate emergence from the depths of his mind; followed, of course, immediately thereafter with the triumph of his physical shadow, Gollum, in reclaiming the Ring from Frodo. The event, is then both literal and metaphorical at the same time; those two separate actions might even best be considered only a single action, a moment united in its definition but separated in time. The Ring, in this conception, works to bring out the shadow from the mind; at its strongest and most desperate, when it is carried into Sammath Naur and held over the Cracks of Doom, it literally and figuratively grants power to Frodo’s shadows.
- Matthew Neer
- Matthew Neer
 Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, 51.
 Ibid., 47.
 Maybe it always acts to put in place a Dark Power, whether it was Sauron or someone else who could take up that mantle. One interesting question to ask here is whether Sauron knew, when he was forging the Ring, that it would be at least semi-conscious. To which I say: I prefer not to guess.
 Ibid., 704.