Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Ring-object and the Ring-entity

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.”[1] 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.”[2] 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.[3]
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.[4]

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

[1] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, 51.
[2] Ibid., 47.
[3] 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.
[4] Ibid., 704.


  1. I think that this is something worth exploring: to what extent do makers put themselves into their (sub) creations? The Ring is in some sense an extension, an expression, an aspect of Sauron. Is this the same sense in which the Ainur are aspects of Ilúvatar? Or the Silmarils (as Murphy points out in her post "How to Be Evil") are living things, more like children than artifacts of Fëanor? RLFB

  2. This post makes me want to think about whether the Ring is either a creature in its own right or whether it is a tool for a power higher than Sauron's. As the post says, we know that the Ring isn't Sauron evidenced by how it would be willing to go to a new powerful person and create a new Dark Power, The post seems to think that the Ring is a willing powerful thing in its own right. However, perhaps the Ring is a tool for the will of Melkor, for, I think in the Silmarillion, it says that Melkor, though he is removed from this world, his will remains in it guiding his servants. Perhaps the Ring, possessed of Sauron's power, is guided by Morgoth's will to twist, corrupt, divide, diminish, control and destroy? Larry B.

  3. This post brings to my mind another potential option to what guides the power of the Ring, perhaps the will of Morgoth. In the Silmarillion, I think, it is said that Morgoth, though he is shut out from the world, his will remains in it and guides his servants. Perhaps the Ring then is neither guided by Sauron, nor merely grants incredible power to the evil in a person, but is instead a tool of Morgoth in the grand effort to control, subdue, corrupt, destroy, and divide the peoples of Middle-Earth as a whole.

  4. I agree with Larry. It seems clear to me that the ring is not entirely under the command of Sauron--Tolkien makes it clear that the ring wants to be worn, but it does not seem to care much about who its master is. Gandalf seems to fear the ring's power much more than Sauron's power--he refuses to bear the ring (because he thinks it will defeat him), but he chooses to march right up to the gates of Mordor. This suggests that the ring and Sauron are two different entities. It makes sense if we think of the ring as the more powerful evil entity, which doesn't particularly care who its master is, so long as that person is using the ring to do evil. In this case, Gandalf is at great risk from it, because the ring would purposely trick him into using it if it had the opportunity--even if he used it to oppose Sauron. If the ring were simply a tool of Sauron, then it would never purposely trick anyone into becoming a formidable foe to Sauron. So the ring is not entirely a weapon, but has a will of its own; a taste for chaos, one could say. (Of course, I am not entirely convinced that the ring is not a reflection of Tolkien's feelings on nuclear weapons, as that is the parallel that jumps out to me the most...)

  5. Are we so sure that Tolkien would reject the notion that the ring-entity, as you call it, would be capable of possessing someone? One of the things that struck me while reading your post was that it might be profitable to start thinking of Sauron in more explicitly theological terms. What, after all, is Sauron? He's a *demon*. Demons can possess people, and indeed there's a long standing tradition that they can also possess things, or inhabit things, or at least be somehow associated very closely with things (often the line is somewhat blurry). This doesn't necessarily remove free will from the equation, we might say that the error of, say, Boromir was in opening himself to and inviting in this possession (the ring says "take me and gain power" and in doing so we open ourselves to the power of the ring). It may be that evil more generally functions this way throughout the texts.

  6. Thank you for the comments. I'll respond briefly to each of you.

    Professor Fulton Brown:
    Obviously this question deserves a much longer treatment than I will give it here. One could, if they were so inclined, make a spectrum of created things in terms of their 'characterness' – it is clear, at least to me, that the Ainur have far more agency than do the Silmarils, which only cause others to decide on bad actions. I'm not sure I like this approach very much though. I would rather suggest a system of categories for created things, which would, it now occurs to me, include everything except for Ilúvatar. The Ainur, as sentient beings with agency, would be in one category; the Silmarils would be in another, as objects with some semblance of life contained within them. Andúril, as a purely inanimate object, would be in yet another. The Ring would probably occupy a category all of its own, between the Silmarils and the Ainur on a scale. The former do not have any essence of Fëanor poured into them; the latter are of the essence of Ilúvatar himself. The Ring isn’t really well-described by either of those.

    The last line of Quenta Silmarillion reads: “Yet the lies that Melkor, the mighty and accursed, Morgoth Bauglir, the Power of Terror and of Hate, sowed in the hearts of Elves and Men are a seed that does not die and cannot be destroyed; and ever and anon it sprouts anew, and will bear dark fruit even unto the latest days.” Melkor himself is removed to the Timeless Void, whose walls were watched forever, until the world ends. His will lives on in his remaining servants, chiefly Sauron in The Lord of the Rings (presumably there are others somewhere); but he himself is gone, and can act no longer in Arda. The Ring acts for chaos and darkness, certainly, concepts which were introduced into the world by Melkor when he began to sing a tune apart from Ilúvatar’s in the Ainulindalë; so in that sense maybe we could say it is a tool of Melkor’s will. But no, I would not suggest that the Ring is guided by Morgoth’s will or that Morgoth is its true master, except in the sense that Sauron’s master was Morgoth. I should note, however, that “Morgoth’s lies” seem to me to be precisely those shadows that Le Guin ascribes to each mind, so perhaps we could say that the Ring is able to act through Morgoth’s evil, though it is not originally of it.

  7. Anna:
    Insofar as you agree with Larry, I disagree with you as well. I don’t know that we can say that the Ring is more powerful than Sauron; for one, assuming some form of the law of thermodynamics applies (I know, I know), its power could be no greater than Sauron’s, and probably much less than his, since Sauron could not give it more power than he himself had. Hence, though the Ring may corrupt all, it would only actively strive against its maker if its current wielder was strong enough to make it a contest. Elrond suggests that only the Wise would be powerful enough to overthrow Sauron by force with the Ring; all others would be lost. Consider Gollum, who had the Ring for centuries but only hid beneath the Misty Mountains.
    As for the nuclear weapons question, it seems to me he did consider it an analogy of sorts, not as allegory for real events but more as his feelings for what should happen to the technology. We’ve discussed this at some point in class; he addresses it directly in his foreword and denies it (though I don’t really believe him either). On the other hand, one might easily suggest that it is an analogy for any powerful item, or even great power itself, rendering the idea of comparing it to one topic in particular absurd.

    I won’t bother guessing your name, but the last commenter:
    I suppose I can’t actually rule out the possibility, since I have never met Tolkien and, even if I had, I doubt this would be one of the first things that I would think of to ask him. But what I meant in my essay was that it seems incompatible with his view of free will and evil being the act of curbing it. I don’t think it is correct to say that Boromir exerted his free will to accept the power of the Ring over his mind, whereas Gandalf and Aragorn exerted their free wills to reject it; free will to me implies actions and not thoughts. Anyway, I like the idea of the Ring working on the mind’s shadow – Morgoth’s lies descended in humanity through time (it occurs to me now that this is very close to the idea of Original Sin) – as it seems more closely in line with Tolkien’s thoughts in his letters.

  8. Okay, maybe my responses weren't so brief. Sorry about that.

  9. I think that the idea of the ring’s power coming from Morgoth rather than Sauron (although maybe not the direct will of the ring as Mathew points out) leads to an interesting way to think about the influence of the Valar in the Lord of the Rings. As we discussed recently in class, the Valar are basically invisible to the untrained observer who does not know the history of Middle Earth. However, Varda is called on several times, and the name Elbereth seems to hold some kind of power which can be wielded. I think that a parallel can be drawn here between the influence of Varda and Melkor. In the Silmarillion, Melkor “hated [Varda], and feared her more than all others” (26). Therefore, it makes sense that Varda would be the one called upon when fighting the evil which is the product of Melkor’s influence over the world. However, Varda does not seem to directly respond to these requests, but instead a more indirect power over the characters causes them to have the strength to fight their enemies. I think that this is similar to the power of the ring over people’s mind. Melkor does not intervene directly, and instead the ring exerts a form of indirect power. It is interesting that Frodo is able to call upon Elbereth while carrying the ring, but that is a question for another day.

  10. As I mentioned in my own blog post (from ages ago), I've always thought of the Ring not only as sentient, as a character in its own right, but as an extension of Sauron that is nevertheless free of him. I fully agree with Matthew on most of his points, but I'm not sure it's simply an extension of Morgoth's power, either. In my mind, it's something that's been influenced and fed by Morgoth, that was born of Sauron, but that's been let loose into the world and can act, occasionally, of its own accord. In short, I thinkn the Ring embodies Sauron's shadow.

    I mean 'shadow' in the sense that LeGuin employs in her essay, "The Child and the Shadow," but in a somewhat more literal way than she uses the term. For LeGuin, everyone has a shadow, an inner drive for our deepest needs and desires that must be faced, accepted, and controlled by the conscious mind lest it control our actions. In LeGuin's "A Wizard of Earthsea," (spoiler) this is very much the case for Ged. In a similar way, I think that when Sauron created the Ring, he poured all his desires--and therefore much of his power--into that Ring, and transferred his own Shadow into it. Then, incarnate in the Ring, Sauron's Shadow is able to coerce and tempt the shadows of all those who come in contact with the Ring. The danger of the Ring isi therefore that it gives power to our inner desires, allowing our own shadows to corrupt our reason, and use our own free will to its own ends.