Friday, May 9, 2014


 In class on Wednesday, we spent a good deal of time considering whether evil is entirely external, whether the Ring, in the words of Shippey, is an “amplifier” (Road to Middle-Earth, 142) or an external force, what the Ring does to a person, and so forth. We identified three places in Lord of the Rings where Frodo’s choices are less clearly his own: when he puts on the Ring and shouts “O Elberth! Gilthoniel!” at Weathertop (Lord of the Rings, book 1, chapter xi), when he hears distinct voices and feels the striving of two powers within him at Amon Hen (LR, book 2, chapter x), and when he sees his hand move at Minas Morgul (LR, book 4, chapter viii).

The episode at Amon Hen stands out in particular as an interesting example of Tolkien addressing with the tension between an external evil and an internal amplification of some characteristic within the person. As Frodo stands at the summit of Amon Hen, he looks far and wide and sees south to the sea, west to the Misty Mountains, and east to Mount Doom. And then he felt the Eye of Sauron on him.

He heard himself crying out: Never, never! Or was it: Verily I come, I come to you? He could not tell. Then as a flash from some other point of power there came to his mind another thought: Take it off! Take it off! Fool, take it off! Take off the Ring!

The two powers strove in him. For a moment, perfectly balanced between their piercing points, he writhed, tormented. Suddenly he was aware of himself again. Frodo, neither the Voice nor the Eye: free to choose, and with one remaining instant to do so.

The scene is a bit puzzling, because it is not entirely clear who is the thoughts he is thinking originate from. Shippey writes that the “Take it off! … Take off the Ring!” business was Gandalf speaking, from both his diction and style and a statement Gandalf makes to Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli in book 3, chapter v that he “strove with the Dark Tower.” In spite of this assured  Regardless, the opposing statements given in the beginning prove to be a more interesting question. Where are these two conflicting sentiments coming from? As Shippey suggests, it seems as though the passage could be interpreted as either some inner conflict in Frodo, where he is caught between “his conscious will and his unconscious wickedness,” or perhaps as some external force, like the Ring or a manifestation of Sauron, urging Frodo to come. Or even still, perhaps there is another way, as we discussed in class, and the Ring has corrupted Frodo. Shippey brings this episode up in the context of discussing whether Tolkien presents evil as external or internal, a force or a lack of good. Jane Chance, writing in Tolkien’s Art, interprets the thrust of the passage differently, envisioning it as a triumph of Frodo’s in that he has learned enough to realize that he could slip into being a monster. Though she doesn’t seem to directly bear on the issue that Shippey highlights, Chance does comment that this was an instance of Frodo rescuing himself (Tolkien’s Art, 161). This statement would suggest that she views the evil as a force external to Frodo, though there does seem to be some duality within Frodo, since he was somehow able to exercise self-control because he recognized that he could “become a ‘monster’” (Tolkien’s Art, 161).

So which is it? Is Frodo striving within himself or is he combatting some external force? Shippey would likely say that the tension is there for us to mull over for a reason, that Tolkien intended for us to have this conflict. This is the case he makes for the Ring, that it exists as a sort of statement of the tension between these interpretations of evil. So perhaps we can think of Frodo’s interior/exterior strife as another manifestation of this tension Tolkien is highlighting. The structure of the opening sentence quoted above suggests this in the phrase “he could not tell.” Frodo himself was unable to discern what he was thinking, let alone where the thoughts were coming from. Perhaps this episode is intended to be ambiguous to highlight the tension between an interior source of evil which the Ring amplifies and an exterior source of evil which the Ring embodies.

The encounter at Weathertop (book 1, chapter xi) adds some more depth to this picture. It further provides evidence of a situation where Frodo struggles within himself, but everything in the episode seems remarkably less voluntary than the scene at Amon Hen. A sort of desire “laid hold” of Frodo, “and he could think of nothing else… he simply felt that he must take the Ring and put it on his finger. … resistance became unbearable, and at last he slowly drew out the chain, and slipped the Ring on the forefinger of his left hand.” He did struggle, but he was unable to resist some force. And at the end of the scene, there’s more language similar to that at Amon Hen, “he heard himself crying aloud: O Elbereth! Gilthoniel!” Important here is the involuntary aspect of his exclamation, phrased the exact same way as when, at Amon Hen, he shouts Never, Never! or perhaps Verily I come. Once again, the reader is greeted with a somewhat muddied conflict, where Frodo could easily be interpreted as either succumbing to something within him, as if he were surrendering to sleepiness while watching a boring film or a long reading, or being overwhelmed by something exterior to him. Interestingly, putting on the Ring, the failure in this scene, is the thing which seems to more clearly come from within Frodo. This seems especially true when compared to the crying of O Elbereth! Gilthoniel!, of which he seems to have no control over or awareness of. Conversely, he actively resists putting on the Ring, even though he fails.

Where does this leave the reader? Wrestling. Wrestling with the question of where evil comes from.

- D.D.

1 comment:

  1. Dear DD,
    Thanks for dealing with this tricky question of the evil function of the Ring. I think the three episodes are well-selected (but we never got to Minas Morgul) and present some striking contrasts.

    As you title suggests, we might easily wrestle with the question of ‘external force or amplifier of internal’ factors. But need we ultimately see the Ring’s evil in such a dichotomy? I am reminded of Sauron’s deception and the role he played in the Akallabeth. He is both external force and an amplifier of internal impulses – as some fellow classmates observed in recent blogs on Numenor. He introduces the cult of Morgoth but only through amplifiying and exploiting their fears and unrest. Is there a way in which we can use this model to recognize both factors simultaneously and without conflict operating in the Ring?

    On this line, since Sauron poured his will and malice into the Ring, could we view the Ring less as an impersonal exterior force and more of a abstract, personal force, Sauron’s personal will to dominate itself somehow influencing the Ring-bearer? Can this help us to close the gap?