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Tolkien's Tale Bears Ring of Truth: Set in Tolkien's own mythical Middle-Earth, the Lord of the Rings thrillingly contrasts the ageless desire for freedom and peace with the unquenchable lust for power and control. (Cultural Currents).

Once upon a time, in a far-off land long ago, a simple farmer found a golden ring inside a cave. He found to his delight that the ring had the power to make him invisible when he was wearing it. After the farmer discovered the golden ring's magical property, he realized that he could use the power of invisibility to acquire anything he wanted. He became a messenger to the king, and took advantage of his visit to, the palace to seduce the queen. Subsequently, the pair plotted against the king, murdered him and took his kingdom.

No, the protagonist of this story isn't Gollum or Isildur or Bilbo or Frodo, and the ring in question wasn't forged by the Dark Lord Sauron. Yet there is little doubt that this ancient legend -- of Gyges and his magic ring -- was part of the inspiration for the dominant theme in J.R.R. Tolkien's epic masterpiece The Lord of the Rings.

Plato's The Republic recounts the story of the Ring of Gyges, as it was told by Glaucon to Socrates. Glaucon argues that men are inherently unjust, and are only restrained from unjust behavior by the fetters of law and society. In Glaucon's view, unlimited power blurs the difference between just and unjust men. "Suppose there were two such magic rings," he tells Socrates, "and the just [man] put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely what he liked out of the market or go into houses and lie with anyone at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a god among men. Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point."

J.R.R. Tolkien, in focusing his tale on a magic ring like Gyges', wrote perhaps the most brilliant and richly rendered portrayal of power and corruptibility ever conceived. Tolkien's ring, like Gyges', corrupts, and enslaves, even as it offers its owner invisibility and the temptation of unlimited powers. In both tales, the ring may be viewed as a metaphor for power and its corrupting influence, and the point may be summed up by Lord Acton's famous dictum. Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Roots of the Ring

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, born in 892, was shaped and influenced by many of the 20th century's signature events. An idyllic rural English boyhood gave way to the horrors of World War I, where Tolkien' saw. most his friends cut down in bloodbaths like the battle of the Somme Tolkien worked on The Lord of the Rings during the Second World War and completed the trilogy in the 1950s, but always denied that the work was an allegory inspired by, the dark armies of Nazim or Communism. In stead, he insisted, the book was a myth and epic incorporating universal themes of good and evil.

From a very young age; Tolkien was a scholar as Well as an eccentric, the best British sense of the term. Because of his linguistic aptitude Tolkien learned various European tongues, like Finish and Celtic, and even invented a few languages of his own fascinated with northern. European epic literature and mythology, Tolkien began thinking about writing epic myth himself.

Tolkien's initial foray into full length book writing the straight forward fairy tale The Hobbit, grew out of worlds doodled on a page margin one day, which became the first line of his first novel: "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit." The hobbit, Baggins, is one a race diminutive furry-footed folk, who live in underground., dwellings in a blissful, agrarian land known as the Shire. At one point in the story Bilbo; lost in a labyrinthine cavern and pursued by an evil recluse named Gollum discovers a golden ring Just as Gollum is about to overtake him, Bilbo accidentally slips the ring on his finger and Gollum rushes past without seeing him. Realizing that the ring makes its wearer invisible, Bilbo uses it to escape from goblins who guard exits from the caves. Later, he also uses the ring's magical property to fool his friends; who have given him up for lost, and to rescue his companions from various predicaments.

The Ring Trilogy

Nowhere in The Hobbit is the ring's importance or evil nature foreshadowed. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, set 60 years after the events in The Hobbit, opens similarly to the first novel, with a brief, sunny snapshot of life in the idyllic Shire -- modeled after Anglo-Saxon England -- where hobbits live in peace and virtually without government. As Tolkien explains in the prologue, "the Shire at this time had hardly any 'government.' Families for the most part managed their own affairs. Growing food and eating it occupied most of their time.... [T]here had been no king for nearly a thousand years.... [But]'they attributed to the king of old all their essential laws; and usually they kept the laws of free will, because they were The Rules..., both ancient and just." The Shire possesses only with mostly ceremonial authority and a force of 12 "shirriffs" who spend most of their time round up stray animals.

But the outside world, with its passions and power struggles, can't be kept out forever. Before long, the benign wizard Gandalf reveals to Erodo, Bilbo Baggins' nephew and heir to his estate and his niagic ring, that the ring is the property of Sauron, the Dark Lord of the distant and evil land of Mordor. Sauron forged a number of magic rings in ancient times, and gave some of them to elves, dwarves, and mortal men, with the aim of enslaving them all. The One Ring, wielded by Sauron himself, controls all of the others, and may only be properly used for the purpose of domination. This ring, which Bilbo took from Gollum, was long ago taken from Sauron in battle., But the mortal man who took it, refused to destroy it when he had the opportunity. Since that time. it passed through various hands, always corrupting and betraying the bearer. Even Biblo has been affected: He flies into a demonic rage when Gandalf tries to persuade him to give the ring to Erodo, at last giving up the ring,. very reluctantly.

The Dark Lord is now gathering his forces in another bid to enslave all of Middle-Earth, and is also searching for his lost ring, which he knows a hobbit possesses. Erodo and several companions flee the Shire one jump ahead of Sauron's fearsome Ring wraiths, cloaked riders on black horses, who once were mortal kings to whom Sauron had given rings of power, and who have become his servants.

The ring cannot be used for its intended propose except by its maker, Sauron, or by another with the will and evil ambition to supplant Sauron as world hegemon. But as long as the ring exists, it allows Sauron to amass power, even when he is prevented from recovering it. Middle-Earth's free peoples have no hope except to destroy the ring, and this can only be achieved by casting it into the volcanic fires of Mount Doom, in the land of Mordor where it was originally forged.

Frodo, together with a fellowship of various friends, including several other hobbits, Gandalf, and two mortal men, embarks on a quest to take the ring to Mordor and destroy it. Meanwhile, the armies of men assemble against Sauron's forces in a colossal gambit to distract the Dark Lord and prevent his forces from capturing Frodo and the ring. But this tactic can succeed only if Frodo - the "Ringbearer" -- fulfills his quest by reaching Mount Doom and destroying the ring.

Frodo eventually completes his task in a most unexpected fashion. He and his trusted sidekick (and former gardener) Sam Gamgee find themselves separated from the rest of the fellowship, to find their own way across barren wastes, trackless marshlands, and impassable mountains to the land of Mordor. Moreover, they are being relentlessly tracked by Gollum the evil creature who once possessed the ring and is now trying to get it back But Frodo and Sam manage to capture Gollum and extract from him a promise in the name of the ring itself (which Gollum calls his Precious"), to be their guide. Gollum after all, has been in Mordor before, and knows the way.

Driven by desire to be near the ring, and hoping to somehow regain it, Gollum leads Frodo and Sam through many perils and into Mordor. He eventually betrays them in hopes of getting back the ring, but his. plan backfires and, through a series of hair raising adventures, Frodo and Sam elude the forces of the enemy and finally reach Mount Doom with their burden. In a final, twist, Gollum attacks Frodo, who -- overcome by the ring's evil, addictive powers -- decides not to destroy the ring but to claim it for his own. As the two fight for the ring at the very brink of the lava pit where it must be cast, Gollum manages to rip the ring from Frodo but then, stepping too far in jubilation, falls into the fire with the ring.

Thus the villainous Gollum, one of Tolkien's most intriguing creations, unwittingly helps the cause of the fellowship. Without Gollum's help, Frodo and Sam could never have reached Mordor. Without his act of betrayal and Frodo's capture and subsequent rescue by Sam, they never could have eluded the guards at the entrance to the evil land. Once Frodo and Sam are in Mordor, Gollum, still desperately dogging their footsteps, helps them again by deliberately throwing Sauron's trackers off their trail. And at the bitter end, when the ring's power proves too strong for Frodo to resist, it is Gollum's evil lust for the ring that brings about its destruction.

Because of the ring's demise, Sauron's forces, on the verge of conquering the armies of free men, scatter in panic and are defeated. In the glorious wake of victory, the remaining redoubts of Mordor are thrown down, the legitimate kingship restored among free men, and mercy shown to the defeated barbarians who allied themselves with Sauron. The hobbits, who are occasionally ridiculed throughout the story because of their tiny stature and whimsical behavior, are recognized as the real heroes.

But there is still one obstacle to overcome. The evil wizard Saruman, an ally of Sauron, has sent a band of ruffians back to the shire to make trouble. Returning to the Shire, Frodo and the other three hobbits from the fellowship discover that their idyllic homeland has been transformed into a police state. A large number of hobbits have been forcibly enlisted as policemen and spies, and all over the Shire Saruman's thugs have posted various rules and regulations, including curfew hours. Fro- do and his companions are dismayed to find that, after fighting for freedom in faraway lands against seemingly impossible odds, they have returned home to find their own kinsmen in bondage. With a confidence born of combat experience, they organize an uprising in the Shire and drive out the oppressors in a heroic denouement.

Universal Themes

Although the trilogy has often been reviled by literary sophisticates who deplore its unwieldy prose, its utter lack of irony, and its "old-fashioned," un-2Oth -century treatment of good and evil, The Lord of the Rings has always enjoyed immense popularity. In fact, many consider Tolkien's magnum opus the best, and certainly the most original, work of fiction of the last century, because it combines masterful storytelling and overwhelming imaginative scope with the biggest of Big Themes.

The ring -- the real protagonist -- time and time again tempts the good and evil alike with the promise of absolute power. Early in the narrative, for example, Frodo, overwhelmed by the burden of the ring, offers it to the good wizard Gandalf:

"You are wise and powerful. Will you not take the Ring?" "No!" cried Gandalf, springing to his feet. "With that power I should have power too great and terrible. And over me the Ring would gain a power still greater and more deadly." His eyes flashed and his face was lit as by a fire within. "Do not tempt me! For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself. Yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good. Do not tempt me! I dare not take it, not even to keep it safe, unused. The wish to wield it would be too great for my strength."

Later, Frodo unintentionally tests the elf-queen Galadriel by offering her the ring. She replies by admitting that she has been tempted by desire for it, but then points out that by taking and using it, she would become a Dark Queen "stronger than the foundations of the earth" who would simply take Sauron's place. Sam, Frodo's companion, still not understanding, tries to persuade her to accept Frodo's offer:

"I think [Frodo] was right. I wish you'd take his Ring. You'd put things to rights.... You'd make some folks pay for their dirty work." "I would," she said. "That is how it would begin. But it would not stop with that, alas! We will not speak more of it."

Unfortunately, not all can withstand the ring's temptations. The desire for it has corrupted Gandalf's onetime friend, the wizard Saruman the White, and caused him to ally himself with Sauron, hoping to seize the ring first and with it overthrow the Dark Lord and take his place. The ring also tempts a member of Fellowship, a mortal man interested in leading his people into battle against the enemy. He eventually tries to take the ring from Frodo by force, prompting the Ringbearer to leave the Fellowship, accompanied only by his sidekick Sam. And of course, the ring torments its former owner Gollum, who is driven mad by simultaneous desire for and hatred of the ring.

Besides the corrupting influence of power, another major theme of Tolkien's story is the preeminence of good over evil. The conflict in the novel isn't Manichaean struggle between warring equivalents; good forever outflanks, anticipates, and emploits evil to achieve its ends. The story reads like a series of hills and valleys: For every harrowing adventure and brush with disaster, there follows a haven of calm and peace where the heroes are protected, uplifted, and fortified. Evil, despite its potency and menace, is a mere twisted mockery and pale reflection of good. Referring to the various monstrous races, such as orcs and trolls, that serve Sauron, Tolkien says:

The Shadow that bred them can only mock, it cannot make real new things of its own. I don't think it gave life to [them], it only ruined them and twisted them.

And elsewhere, one of Tolkien s characters observes, concerning the ring's power to twist and corrupt, that, nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so.

Overall, it is implied that a devine will higher than any evil, is guiding the destiny of the ring and its bearer. Gandalf tells Frodo tat the outset that.

There was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought.

The story also empbodies the timeless notion of the weak overcoming the mighty, as expressed in the words of Paul to the Corinthians:

For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are.

Tolkien's hobbits, when contrasted with the (literally!) towering, heroic figures - Gandalf, Aragorn, Boromir, Elrond, and many others - that surround them, appear weak, childishly naive, and more concerned about smoking their pipes and singing songs than carrying out heroic deeds. Yet they rise magnificently to the demand of destiny, and by the end of the trilogy have been transformed into confident, heroic figures in their own right.

In a larger sense, through, the story is about valiance and fighting on even in the face of seemingly impossible odds. Late in the tale. We learn that the heroism and valor of the assembled armies of free men is insignificant in comparison with the might of Sauron's empire. So hopeless does their cause appear that one of their leaders, having seen the vastness of Sauron's forces despairs and commits suicide. Gandalf, in a speech to the leaders of remnant forces of free men, admits to them that their cause, by all appearances, is lost:

Hardly has our strength sufficed to beat off the first great assault. The next will be greater. This war then is without final hope.... Victory cannot be achieved by arms, whether you sit here to endure siege after siege, or march out to be overwhelmed.... You have only a choice of evils, and prudence would counsel you to strength en such strong places as you have, and there await the onset; for so shall the time before your end be made a little longer.

Gandalf then explains that victory will only be achieved by destroying the ring, the source of Sauron's power. He then recommends strategic deception: march forth against Sauron's forces to distract his attention, and buy time for the Ringbearer to fulfill his quest:

We must push Sauron to his last throw. We must call out his hidden strength, so that he shall empty his land.... We must make ourselves the bait, though his jaws should close on us.... We must walk open-eyed into that trap, with courage, but small hope for ourselves. For, my lords, it may well prove that we ourselves shall perish utterly in a black battle far from the living lands; so that even if. [Sauron's citadel] be thrown down, we shall not live to see a new age. But this, I deem, is our duty. And better so than to perish nonetheless -- as we surely shall, if we sit here -- and know as we die that no new age shall be. This is the same unselfish spirit of duty and sacrifice that has animated freedom-fighters of all ages.

Mercy, that most vital of divine attributes upon which human salvation ultimately depends, is another crucial theme. Early on Frodo learns that Bilbo, unlike all of the ring's previous bearers, did not take the ring from an by force. But because Bilbo didn't kill Gollum when he had the chance many years earlier, the malevolent Gollum has alerted the enemy to the ring's whereabouts in the Shire:

"What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!" "Pity?" [replied Gandalf] "It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: hot to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity." ... [Frodo said] "[Gollum] is as bad as an Orc, and just an enemy. He deserves death." [Gandalf replied] "Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the wise cannot see all ends.... [Gollum] is bound up with the fate, of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many."

Gandalf's prophecy, of course, comes to pass, for it is Gollurn -- permitted to live, first by the mercy of Bilbo and then by that of Frodo and Sam on several, different occasions near the end of the story -- who causes the ring to be destroyed. Ultimately mercy carries the day and allows good to triumph over evil.

Christian Symbolism

Tolkien deserves credit for bringing back C.S. Lewis to the Christian faith. Yet, in spite of his devout Catholic beliefs, Tolkien did not consider religious allegory a particularly sophisticated literary tool. Rather than writing a Chronicles of Narnia-style Christian allegory, he created instead a myth from which Christian themes would emerge. And his work is profoundly religious and Christian in its symbolism, despite the near-absence of overtly religious behavior in the story. Gollum, who murders his brother Deagol to obtain the ring and becomes a wretched outcast and a wanderer tormented by guild and desire, calls to mind Cain, the archetype of all murderers and criminals. With his magic staff, Gandalf the Grey is at once the embodiment of the Old Testament patriarch and a Christ figure. In the hellish Mines of Moria, Gandalf sacrifices his life in his gripping battle with the demonic Balrog in order to save his friends and the mission of the felowship. Yet he is later resurrected as Gandalf the White, a nd leads the forces of good into their climactic Armageddon with Sauron's forces. And, in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, the eagles of the mountains swoop down, angel-like, to deliver the heroes from ruin.

Judging from the first of three movies to be released, director Peter Jackson's adaptation of Tolkein's work, filmed in a gorgeous New Zealand setting, is a worthy interpretation, although it suffers, perhaps unavoidably, from being darker in tone that the book. The elf-queen Galadriel, for example, is protrayed as a rather sinister conflicted being whereas in the book she exudes wisdom, love, and graciousness. The book does not delve too deeply into the evils monsters like ores, trolls, and balrogs are only sketchily described Saruman is some what marginalized; and Sauron we never meet directly, at all. In the movie though, all of these creatures and villains seem larger that life, thanks to the magic of computer generated images and the unescapable cinematic need to awe and grip the viewer. Also jettisoned are the many songs that Tolkien's hobbits men and elyes sign to lighten the atmosphere and give context and believability to Tolkein's myth.

But the film is more than stunning digital special effects and New Zealand panoramas. It also artfully introduces many of the major themes of the book while deftly developing the personalities of the superbly casted characters. From the outset, the film dares to have an identity of its own revealing the background of the ring in a skillfully crafted, visually stunning prologue. An introductory voiceover by Cate Blanchett, who plays Galadriel, leaves no doubt as to the movie's central theme when it is explained that rings were given to mortal men "who above all things desire power."

Time has not diminished the relevance of Tolkien's masterpiece, an old-fashioned tale of good and evil heroism and villainy which, unfortunately, the apostles of cynicism-al-chic will never be able to appreciate. Let them scoff. If Plato's Gyges is any indicator, the dangerous appeal of magic rings is as timeless a metaphor as the human imagination is ever likely to produce.
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Author:Bonta, Steve
Publication:The New American
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Jan 28, 2002
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