The Lord Of The Rings


by J. R. R. Tolkien
Symbolism of the Ring: 
 Philosophy and Fantasy
 The Embodiment 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"
 (1 Lot R II, 2 The Council of Elrond)
One of the masters of British Literature, John Ronald Reuel
Tolkien has the unique ability to create a fantasy world in
which exists a nearly endless supply of parallelisms to
reality. By mastering his own world and his own language
and becoming one with his fantasy, Tolkien is able to
create wonderful symbolism and meaning out of what would
otherwise be considered nonsense. Thus, when one decides to
study The Ruling Ring, or The One Ring, in Tolkien's
trilogy "Lord of the Rings", one must not simply perform an
examination of the ring itself, but rather a complex
analysis of the events which take place from the time of
the ring's creation until the time of its destruction.
Concurrently, to develop a more complete understanding of
the symbolic nature of the ring, one must first develop a
symbolic understanding of the characters and events that
are relevant to the story. 
This essay begins with a brief background of Tolkien's
life, followed by a thorough history of the "One Ring"
including its creation, its symbolic significance, its
effect on mortals, and its eventual destruction. Also, this
essay will compare Tolkien's Ring to the Rhinegold Ring of
Norse mythology, and will also show how many of the
characters in the trilogy lend themselves to Christ-figure
status. By examining the Ring from these perspectives, a
clearer understanding of its symbolic significance will be
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, an English scholar and
storyteller, became fascinated by language at an early age
during his schooling at, particularly the languages of
Northern Europe, both ancient and modern. This affinity for
language did not only lead to his profession, but also his
private hobby, the invention of languages. He was also
drawn to the entire "Northern tradition", which inspired
him to study its myths and sagas thoroughly. His broad
knowledge eventually led to the development of his opinions
about Myth, its relation to language, and the importance of
stories. All these various perspectives: language, the
heroic tradition, and Myth, as well as deeply-held beliefs
in Catholic Christianity work together in all of his works,
including The Lord of the Rings (Lot R).
The creation of the "One Ring" or the "Ring of Sauron" goes
back to the years following the fall of Morgoth. At this
time, Sauron established his desire to bring the Elves, and
indeed all the people of Middle-Earth, under his control.
It was his opinion that Manwë and the Valar had abandoned
Middle-Earth after the fall of Morgoth. In order to bring
the Elves under his control, Sauron persuaded them that his
intentions were good, and that he wanted Middle-Earth to
return from the darkness it was in. Eventually the elves
sided with Sauron, and created the Rings of Power under his
guidance. Following the creation of these rings, Sauron
created the One Ring in secret, so that he would be able to
control the other rings and consequently control the Elves.
The creation of the Ring, and the essence of its power is
revealed in the following passage. "and their power was
bound up with it, to be subject wholly to it and to last
only as long as it too should last. And much of the
strength and will of Sauron passed into that One Ring; for
the power of the Elves' Rings was very great, and that
which should govern them must be a thing of surpassing
potency; and Sauron forged it in the Mountain of Fire in
the Land of Shadow. And while he wore the One Ring he could
perceive all the things that were done by means of the
lesser rings, and he could see and govern the very thoughts
of those that wore them." (from The Silmarillion, Of the
Rings of Power and the Third Age) 
The power of the One is recognized by the Elves as soon as
Sauron puts the Ring on his finger. They realize that he
can control their thoughts, and they decide to remove their
rings and not use them. The history of the ring, then,
follows that the Elves and Sauron became bitter enemies,
and the One ring remained in Sauron's possession until it
was taken by Isildur after Sauron's defeat, and was then
lost in the river for many years. Eventually, it was found
by Deagol, who was in turn murdered by his brother Smeagol.
Smeagol is the same person as the pitiful Gollum, who
retained the ring until it was taken by Bilbo Baggins. From
here, it logically follows that it was given to Frodo
Baggins by Bilbo, under the guidance of Gandalf the Grey,
and so we reach the beginning of Lot R.
The nature of the One Ring can be explained in three
distinct ways: First as a personification of Sauron's
power; Second as a symbol of evil in general; And finally,
as an inanimate object with a mind of its own, with the
ability to work away from its creator as well as return to
its creator of its own accord. The next section of this
essay will examine these three explanations. Indeed, as the
Ring's creator and original "owner", Sauron had placed a
great amount of his own power into the ring for the purpose
of controlling the other rings. Because of this, the Ring
is effectively an extension of Sauron's might. The loss of
the Ring does not destroy Sauron, as would the destruction
of it. Rather, his power is simply spread around, and his
influence affects whomever should have possession of the
Ring at any time. Should Sauron recover the ring again,
however, his power will be greater than ever, as is
explained in Book one of Lot R. "If he recovers it, then he
will command them all again, wherever they be, even the
Three, and all that has been wrought with them will be laid
bare, and he will be stronger than ever."(1 Lot R I,2 The
Shadow of the Past) Even without the ring, then, Sauron's
power was immense. 
Throughout Lot R, however, there are only hints of this
power. Sauron's power lies in control and dominion, and the
deprivation of free will. One example of Sauron's power
reflected in Lot R is in Gollum, whose pitiful condition is
the result of Sauron's domination over him as the bearer of
the One Ring. 
The Ring presented as a symbol of evil is possibly the most
important idea represented in the trilogy. In Tolkien's
world, evil is the antithesis of creativity, and is
dependent on destruction and ruin for its basis.
Conversely, goodness is associated with the beauty of
creation as well as the preservation of anything that is
created. The symbolic nature of these two ideologies is
represented in the Eleven Rings, which symbolize goodness,
and the One Ring, which is wholly evil. A main theme of Lot
R, then, is the struggle between good will and evil. 
Another theme that is in accordance with this struggle is
the theory that while goodness can create and be
beneficial, evil can only serve to pervert and destroy.
Therefore, evil cannot exist unless there is something that
can be perverted and destroyed. This idea is the main
essence of Sauron's evil nature, and thus the One Ring is
the essence of evil as well, as it is the personification
of Sauron. In the "Letters" of Tolkien, it is said that,
"Essentially the primary symbolism of the Ring is as the
will to mere power, seeking to make itself objective by
physical force and mechanism, and so also inevitably by
lies." (Letters 180) This is to say that the purpose of the
Ring is to destroy, through deceit and corruption, anything
good in the world. 
Another way to show the symbolic nature of the ring is to
say that it represents the omnipresence of evil. Its very
existence, because it contains the evil will of its
creator, has the power to tempt, corrupt, and in doing so
destroy. The next way in which the nature of the Ring can
be examined is in the way it has seemingly animate
abilities as an inanimate object, namely the ability to
work away from and return to its creator. In order to
understand this, one must realize that if the Ring is evil
in itself, which has been explained earlier, then it must
also have the ability to work evil. It cannot necessarily
create evil ideas on its own, but instead it can take
advantage of any opportunity which presents itself to the
Ring. Specifically, whenever Frodo is tempted to use or
actually uses the Ring, the Ring has a chance to work
corruption on him, even in the absence of the creator. In
this way, the Ring is advantageous, and the stronger the
presence of evil, the easier it is for the Ring to work on
the bearer. For example, on Weathertop, the presence of the
Witch-king is a tremendous evil, and the Ring takes
advantage of this, convincing Frodo to use it in order to
Although Frodo is not permanently corrupted at this point,
the Ring is slowly eating away at him, and its power over
him grows each time he uses it. This leads inexorably to
the final failure of Frodo, that being at the Cracks of
Doom, when he decides that the Ring is his by right. At
this point, the Ring has won, and it is only by chance that
it is successfully destroyed. It can be said that it is
either the culmination of the Ring's corruption of Frodo
that resulted in its victory or else it is that the Ring
finally had enough outward evil presence to aid it in
conquering the bearer, that presence being Mordor itself,
the heart of evil. The idea that the Ring has a mind of its
own is further explained in the way it is never lost or
forgotten for long. As Gandalf explains in Fellowship, "A
Ring of Power looks after itself, Frodo. It may slip off
treacherously, but its keeper never abandons it." (1 Lot R
1,2 The Shadow of the Past) This statement shows how the
Ring will protect itself from destruction if at all
possible. The further explanation, that, "It was not
Gollum...but the Ring itself that decided things. The Ring
left him." (1 Lot R 1,2 The Shadow of the Past) again shows
how the Ring always strives to return to its creator. This
goes to further the notion that Sauron has control over the
Ring even when it is not in his possession. His power is
not vanquished by the absence of the Ring, simply reduced
and spread out. The Ring will always be found, and it will
always return to its creator so that its evil nature can be
The temptation of Frodo throughout Lot R is another
important aspect of the power of the One Ring. Unless one
first understands what is involved in a struggle between
Good and Evil, it is incomplete to simply say that such a
struggle exists. Also, in order to examine the nature of
temptation, one must also discuss the idea of free will. If
the essence of Evil is control and domination, which has
been explained earlier, and the essence of goodness is
freedom and creativity, then it seems as though temptation
is based on evil. The Ring does tempt Frodo, in an effort
to subvert him and conquer his ability to choose whether or
not to wear the Ring, but it is not the nature of goodness
to prevent this from happening, because to do so it would
be to destroy Free Will in a different fashion with the
same result. 
From Frodo's point of view, the entire trilogy is an
examination of choice and free will. When Frodo chooses to
take the Road to the Fire at the Council of Elrond, he is
not only choosing to take a dangerous path, but he is also
choosing to continue to allow himself to be presented with
the temptations that are presented by the Ring. There is a
very important relationship that concerns both temptation
as well as the general effect of the Ring on mortals. This
is the conflict between Frodo and Boromir. Their
confrontation is an example of the choice issue, and the
temptation and fall of Boromir is the first of two critical
choices that are made at this point. Boromir is overwhelmed
by the Ring's power, and it eventually results in his
madness. The Ring preys upon Boromir's desire for the power
of Command, and it corrupts him through this weakness. In
the end, Boromir is rescued only by his death, which,
coupled with his last-breath admission of his attempt to
retrieve the Ring, give a bittersweet sense of redemption.
Aragorn's words following Boromir's death, "In Minas Tirith
they endure the East Wind, but they do not ask it for
tidings. But now Boromir has taken his road, and we must
make haste to choose our own."(2 Lot R III, 1 The Departure
of Boromir) sum up the fall of Boromir, and show what the
future must hold for the rest of them. 
The second choice made at this point concerns Frodo's
choice to use the Ring in order to escape from Boromir. At
this time, the power of the Ring nearly conquers Frodo, and
it is only the last-minute intervention of Gandalf which
saves Frodo. The enhanced powers of perception that Frodo
has when he wears the Ring is the essence of temptation put
forth by the evil forces at work. Frodo is obviously
tempted to use the Ring for his own prosperity, for the
power of perception is very great with the Ring. At this
time, he is unable to see the danger of the Ring that is
ever-growing. This section of the trilogy is one of the
most important of all, and it is a turning point in both
the reader's understanding of the Ring as well as Frodo's.
There is an interesting parallel here, concerning an issue
which will be expanded on at a later point, a parallel
between Frodo's individual struggle with temptation on the
summit and Christ's temptation on the summit. Not
necessarily to say that Frodo Baggins is a Christ-figure,
but rather to suggest that the issue of free will is an
individual matter seems relevant here. The effect of the
Ring on mortals is not limited to temptation and
corruption. In addition to these, the Ring works in
different ways, exploiting the weaknesses and fears of each
individual who encounters it in any way. Evidently, there
are only three individuals who are not tempted by the Ring.
Sauron is immune to the power of it, for it is the
personification of his own evil nature which the Ring
represents. Sam is only tempted by the Ring once, before
the Tower of Cirith Ungol, and he defeats the temptation.
This is most likely because of his undying loyalty to Frodo
and his intentions. He would never think to upstage Frodo
by allowing the Ring to become an issue for him. 
The third individual who is immune to the temptation of the
Ring is Tom Bombadil, who is possibly the strongest
reference to a Christ-figure in the trilogy. He is "the
Master of Wood, water, and hill" (Elwood 105) according to
Old Man Willow and other inhabitants of nature. It is his
nature not to be influenced by the evil forces of the Ring.
He knows his bounds, and will never go beyond them. It is
this which prevents him from becoming corrupted by the
Ring. He has set bounds for himself, and is completely
content with them. This lack of ambition is something not
present in any other character in the story. Any other
character, including Gollum, Frodo, Boromir, and even
Gandalf, possesses an innate sense of ambition which allows
for the evil of the Ring to work. The most obvious example
of the Ring's effect on a mortal is obviously Gollum.
Gollum is the result of nearly complete corruption by the
Ring, and his situation demonstrates to us the way that the
Ring's evil works. He is evasive, cunning. He lies and
deceives everyone, including himself. He has a peculiar
relationship with the Ring, hating and loving it at the
same time. In effect, Gollum represents what Frodo could
have become. Also, he represents in an exaggerated fashion
what becomes of Frodo whenever he wears the Ring. Gollum's
mind and soul are shattered by his obsession for the Ring,
and its retrieval is his only and ultimate goal. This
advanced stage of corruption is another example of the
parasitic, evil nature which the Ring represents. 
The next section of this essay deals with the destruction
of the Ring, including the failure of Frodo and the irony
of Gollum's intervention. At the last moment, in the heart
of Sauron's kingdom, Frodo wavers in his quest, and gives
in to the temptation completely. The Ring has complete
control over Frodo for only an instant before the
intervention of Gollum, whose death is redeemed only by the
ultimate completion of his quest, that to retrieve the
Ring. His intervention seems to prevent an ultimate
catastrophe, but one must realize that Gollum would've
attempted to retrieve the Ring from Frodo whether or not
Frodo had accepted it as his own. Therefore, it is
irrelevant to wonder what would have happened if Frodo had
not failed in his individual quest. At first, it seems as
though this ending to such a complicated ordeal is too
incomplete, leaving too much to chance. However, it is this
ending which further develops the concept of evil explained
earlier. Evil is a destructive force, and it carries within
it the formula for its own destruction. Therefore, because
the Ring is the embodiment of Evil, it had the potential
for self-destruction. 
This idea, of the self-destructive nature of Evil, is the
most important issue concerning the destruction of the
Ring. There is a major flaw in the mind of Sauron, and in
turn the mind of Evil, which is that Sauron never
considered the possibility that anyone would desire to
destroy the Ring. Similarly, the Ring itself, in its desire
to return to its master Sauron, never considered the
possibility that the level of corruption that it had
performed against Gollum would turn against it. Indeed,
Gollum was so obsessed with the Ring that when he finally
gets it back, he is so ecstatic that he missteps. In both
cases, Evil has deceived itself, which in turn has brought
about its destruction. The Ring, the symbol of Evil and
evil power, has been defeated, not by the will of goodness,
but rather by its own doing. 
The next section of this essay will make comparisons
between Lot R and Norse Mythology, specifically the myths
of the Rhinegold Ring and Otter's Ransom. Also, comparisons
will be made between Lot R and Christianity, specifically
the possible presence of one or more Christ-figures in the
trilogy. Through these comparisons, a greater understanding
of the universality of the Ring's symbolic significance
will be reached. 
The Myth of Otter's Ransom is a retelling of a myth
contained in the Volsunga Saga of Norse Mythology. In this
account, three gods, Loki, Odin, and Honir, are in a
predicament over the accidental killing of Otter, brother
of the giants Fafnir and Regin. The gods are trapped by the
brothers, and held to avenge Otter's death. In order to
save them, Odin makes an offer to repay the family for the
death. The ransom price set by the family is a horde of red
gold, enough to entirely cover the body of Otter. In order
to accomplish this, Loki leaves while Odin and Honir
remain. Loki borrows a net from another god, and proceeds
to capture the dwarf Andvari from the bottom of a pool
inside a cavern. Loki demands that Andvari give him his
horde of gold that he controls within the pool. Andvari
reluctantly agrees, and gives Loki the gold. After this,
Loki notices a ring on Andvari's finger, and demands it as
well. A conflict emerges from this demand, and eventually
Loki gets the ring, along with Andvari's curse upon it and
the gold. Loki returns, and they give the gold to the
family and cover Otter's body with it. As they leave, they
tell the family of the curse. 
The important thing to realize about this story is that the
ring is actually the Rhinegold Ring of Norse Mythology. The
bearer of this Ring is the one who controls the massive
horde of Rhinegold. A case can be made for the horde as a
symbol of power, in which case there is direct relevance to
the One Ring in
 Lot R. Whoever bears the ring has power, the power to
command. This possibility in itself has the power to
corrupt those who desire possession of the ring. 
Another account of the Rhinegold Ring is portrayed in
Stephan Grundy's novel, "Rhinegold". In this account, the
power of the ring is shown more clearly than in the first
account. After the father of Otter, Hraithmar, puts on the
ring, he is overcome by his desire for the gold. As soon as
he comes upon the pile covering Otter's body, he is drawn
to it. "The longer Hraithmar gazed at the gold, the hotter
its light seemed to burn in his body, shaking him with a
sudden fear of desire." (Grundy 35) In a shocking
similarity to Lot R, the Ring, once used, has a tremendous
power to corrupt and overpower. 
These are two examples of the many parallels that exist
between Tolkien's fantasy and that of Norse Myth. The
possibility of a Christ-figure in Lot R is a difficult
issue for several reasons. First, Tolkien himself denied
any such allegorical meaning behind the trilogy and in fact
denied nearly any allegorical meaning at all in his works.
Also, it seems as though many of the characters bear some
similarity to Christ at times, but none are completely
representative of Him. There is almost always some area in
which the character in LotR is lacking with respect to his
Christ-like status. For example, The character of Tom
Bombadil, discussed earlier with respect to the Ring's
power, seems to be extremely Christ-like in that he is
considered by those who know him to be, "The Master of
wood, water, and hill." (Grundy 35) Also, he is truly the
master of himself, and he knows his limitations as a man.
Like all men, he is limited; like Christ, he limits
himself. At this point, it would seem that Tom is a good
representation of Christ. However, there are two distinct
differences that separate Christ from Tom. The first is the
fact that Tom knows of the miserable existence of the
Barrow-Wights, yet is unmoved by the thought of them in
misery. This lack of human compassion is a key difference
between Tom and the Christ of faith. Also, while Tom has
limited himself like Christ, he has never suffered to gain
his humility. He has never been ambitious, and is not
tempted. To create another symbolic reference to the One
Ring, Tom would never feel the temptation for the Ring, in
the same way he would never be tempted by a source of power
such as the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. 
This is an aspect of Tom that would suggest that he is less
human than he would appear to be. Perhaps he is a "joyful
savior" rather than the type of savior that the faith
Christ was portrayed to have been. Tom is one example of a
Christ-figure in the trilogy. Others include Gandalf, whose
remarkable return to life after the battle with the Balrog
could be symbolic of Christ's resurrection. Also, Gandalf's
ability to be tempted yet resist temptation, his ordeal
after his resurrection in which his friends did not at
first recognize him, and his transformation from Gandalf
the Grey to Gandalf the White are all areas in which
parallels can be drawn to Christ. The only problem with the
theory of Gandalf is that he is ultimately unable to save
Middle-Earth. Although he guides Frodo in his mission, he
can hardly receive credit when the mission fails. He is not
strong enough to save middle-earth, and this is because he
was too strong in his successful attempt to resist the
temptation of the Ring. 
In order to summarize the essence of this study on the
symbolism of the One Ring, it can be said that the Ring
itself can be explained separately from an explanation of
the Evil nature of the Ring. The Ring itself is the reality
of Evil in the physical world. In every way, it is the
nature of evil which must be either accepted or rejected
outright. Its mere presence is a personification of the
opportunity for people to have and execute free will and
make morally correct or incorrect decisions. Also, the ring
is a symbol of power, evil power. It is the part of nature
that continually strives to destroy a person's ability to
exercise free will. The exercise of Evil, and in essence
the power of the Ring, is the exact opposite of freedom. As
for the nature of evil, it has been shown that no good can
possibly come from evil means, but evil results can be
averted if one can acquire the evil object while resisting
the evil nature of it. Also, the Ring is both real and
While the physical nature of the Ring is behavioral, and
can be physically observed, the essence or power of the
Ring is also a concept, a concept which opposes morality.
Because of this, the Ring may be destroyed physically, and
with it the power of its creator, but its essence, Evil,
will remain present in some form until the end of time.
Works Cited
Crossley-Holland, Kevin. The Norse Myths. New York:
Pantheon, 1980.
Ellwood, Gracia Fay. Good News From Tolkien's Middle Earth.
Grand Rapids,
Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1970.
Grundy, Stephan. Rhinegold. New York: Bantam, 1994.
Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy.
New York: Ballantine, I--1954, II--1955, III--1956.
(References to The Lord of the Rings (LotR) are by volume,
book number, chapter number and chapter title.)
Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel. The Silmarillion. New York:
Ballantine, 1995. (References to The Silmarillion are by
chapter name)
Works Consulted
Carter, Lin. Tolkien: A Look Behind The Lord of the Rings.
New York: Ballantine, 1969.
Kocher, Paul H. Master of Middle Earth. New York:
Ballantine, 1972.
Petty, Anne C. One Ring to Bind Them All: Tolkien's
Mythology. Mobile: Univ. of Alabama Press, 1979.
Ready, William. The Tolkien Relation. Chicago: Henry
Regenery Co., 1968.
Schlauch, Margaret. The Saga of the Volsungs. New York:
W.W. Norton & Co., 1978.


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