Dr. Bente Videbaek
October 8, 2015
Corruption, Power and Loneliness in The Lord of the Rings
The politics of good and evil J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series might appear, to casual observers, polar, dissolute and opposed intrinsically. In Middle-Earth live beings of pure goodness, those being the elves, and beings of pure darkness, those being the various monsters that populate the realm, the Orcs and the Dark Lord Sauron. The conflict of the series, by itself, is the clash between what is good and righteous – freedom, security and nature, and what is evil and selfish – control, dominion, the industry of war. For J.R.R. Tolkien, who fought as a second lieutenant in World War I, or “The Great War,” a war characterized by ambiguous goals and atrocities committed on both sides, the wars for Middle-Earth feel disingenuous to his experience. Yet beyond the titanic conflicts of Man, Orc and Elf Tolkien crafts a much more personal battle wherein the forces of both good and evil rest not between nations but in the heart of one simple Hobbit named Frodo Baggins. Catalyzing the events of The Lord of the Rings is the One Ring, an object of intense desire that corrupts all creatures it comes into contact with in the promise of power. The idea of “power,” the lure of it and the cost of it, drives the meaning that Tolkien implies behind The Lord of the Rings, conveying the true conflict between good and evil as the journey of internal discovery and struggle by Frodo. By analyzing Frodo’s journey, adventures and eventual, inevitable, irreversible corruption by the One Ring and by interpreting the One Ring and its agents as symbols for the pursuit of selfish gains in the context of Tolkien’s experiences in “The Great War,” it shall be illustrated that there exists a distinct link between Tolkien’s experiences in World War I and the power struggle of The Lord of the Rings series, so as to express a philosophy regarding violence and power, that power breeds corruption, war breeds selfishness and survival breeds only loneliness. In Tolkien’s view, evil in all beings lies inherently, and that when exposed and brought to the front, these internal evils can never be cured.
Much like Tolkien’s journey from Oxford to the frontlines of the war in 1916, Frodo Baggins journeys from the shire and into the wider world reluctantly. The worlds both Frodo and Tolkien leave behind hold in them an internalized beauty that neither wishes to leave. Tolkien was reluctant to join the war at its outset, even amidst pressure from his pears (Garth, 42). Tolkien confided in a Catholic professor before his departure, describing the war as “the collapse of all [his] world.” The Catholic professor responded by telling him the human race was “back to normal” (Garth, 48). In this way the essence of war was a destruction of the very principles the gentle, “melancholy” (Garth, 48) Tolkien held as tenets of humanity. His professor’s comment seems to have had a profound effect on Tolkien’s worldview and on the way he designs the world of Middle-Earth. Normalcy, in The Lord of the Rings is a world fueled by war and plagued by evil, though the Shire seems itself a placid, near idyllic place where no hobbit starves and war is almost unheard of (Fellowship, 6). Though described as almost a pastoral dreamscape, the Shire, as home for the Hobbits, because of its near-utopic level of contentment for its citizens, has lead to a complacent society, obsequious to social normality, of which Frodo stands above and learns to dislike in his fellows. The hobbit’s complacency mirrors much of the nationalistic feelings produced by the English government to convince its young men to join the army at the start of “The Great War.” The nature of each place’s existence relied on the ignorant and obedient nature of their populaces, an ignorance that is easily preyed upon by larger powers, whether it is Saruman at the end of The Return of the King or the English government prompting its citizens to go into a war they did not understand. To Tolkien, this constituted a darker side of humanity, a misuse of power.
The essence of the term, “power” in The Lord of the Rings stems from Tolkien’s notion of a corrupt inner self in that “power,” relative to the potential of its owner, poses an ever greater threat the more there is of it. At the council of Elrond, Elrond states definitively, “If any of the Wise should with this Ring overthrow the Lord of Mordor, using his own arts, he would then set himself on Sauron’s throne, and yet another Dark Lord would appear” (Fellowship, 300). Tolkien here does not represent even the ring as a matter of temptation. The One Ring is simply “power” and power to dethrone, to defeat militarily another evil is to be evil. Tolkien contextualizes any single act of conquering in The Lord of the Rings as the purest form of evil in all of being. The ring in the hands of a being such as Gandalf with even greater power illustrates, however, the means by which no creature may be able to contain all-consuming power. Even so, Elrond goes on to say, “nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so.” (Fellowship, 300). Sauron himself was bred into evil and was not designed so intrinsically. The same could be said of the Orcs, who were Elves once but corrupted into their opposite counterpart, filled with the desire for war. Saruman, who too turns face, is an industrialist of war, a man fascinated with machines, willing to desiccate nature. Tolkien, in a statement in 1945, pronounces his distaste for machines of war. He calls “The Great War,” “the first War of the Machines” and goes on to say, “everyone the poorer, many bereaved or maimed and millions dead, and only one thing triumphant: the machines” (Garth, 190). Tolkien, while writing grandly of the conflict between good and evil, despises war on a mass scale, designing it as a means by which nature is destroyed and is perpetuated only by any being with power seeking more power.
Yet still poses a threat to even the smallest creatures. The ring, in the hands of lesser mortals such as hobbits, has only the ability to turn them invisible, an act of selfishness, an act of survival. Though Tolkien portrays the ring as possessing its own agency, as Gandalf says, “A ring of power looks after itself” (Fellowship, 60), the only agency it is capable of acquiring is through its hosts, through their own self-destructive or selfish capacity. The power of the One Ring is not to coerce or to bargain but to insidiously promise power to its wearer or to anybody fixated on the Ring. It may only use what is already there. It corrupts immediately Sméagol, feasting on the self doubt and the self hatred already present in him. Sméagol was forced to invent the narrative of the ring as his “precious,” as his “birthday present” to allay his guilt (Fellowship, 62). As Gandalf ruminates, “He [hates] it and [loves] it, as he [hates] and [loves] himself.” The fact that Sméagol has no choice but to become a being of pure self-loathing represents thus a synthesis of the ring’s total corruption, having been its bearer for the longest of anyone in series. Though small, weak, powerless, a hobbit-like creature, Sméagol became the parts of his darker self, motivated totally by greed, fear and animalistic tendencies. Sméagol symbolizes everything primal that comes from conflict, such that Tolkien was involved in in “The Great War.”
The One Ring feasts on even the nobler seeming aspects of conflict, especially in men. When at the council of Elrond, Boromir speaks of the One Ring as an army recruiter speaks of battle. “Why should we not think the Great Ring has come into our hands to serve us in our very hour of need…” he says. “Valour needs first strength and then a weapon. Let the Ring be your weapon, if it has power as you say. Take it and go forth to victory!” (Fellowship, 300). Boromir describes the ring in terms of “valour” and victory,” terms of endearment to any soldier, but they belie the violence inherent in them. The Ring grows from these desires, possessing them and growing them in its subject in turn. Boromir, concerned with the survival of his people just as Frodo is with the Hobbits and Galadriel is with the Elves, conceives of war as the only means to his people’s safety and thus is corrupted and manipulated into betraying Frodo and the rest of the Fellowship. Tolkien envisions war in The Lord of the Rings as an unfortunate consequence of the evil present in the world, yet this evil is just a symptom of evil beliefs present in his characters. In the case of Bilbo, Gandalf remarks that “[Bilbo] [takes] so little hurt from the evil, and [escapes] in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity” (65) because he had refused to murder Sméagol when he had the chance in his journey, because to hurt, to kill are aspects of an evil society in Tolkien’s vision. Though the only one of the ring-bearers besides Sam to give up the ring willingly, the Ring still possesses him, manifesting in his intrinsic greed. Frodo is forced to watch as “a shadow [seems] to [fall] between them, and through it he [finds] himself eyeing a little wrinkled creature with a hungry face and bony groping hands” (Fellowship, 260). The nature of the ring, no matter their goodness, is to pronounce and exacerbate the bad, manifesting in a physical transformation for Bilbo into something purely ugly, an aspect of Bilbo’s personality that is forever changed. Frodo, witnessing this event, discovers a premonition of what may happen to him should he keep the ring.
The corruption of Frodo comes at the slow whittling away of both his integrity as a person and the friends whom he keeps, mirroring Tolkien’s own experiences in “The Great War.” Frodo is led into danger and though naturally good, called the best of the Shire by Bilbo and Gandalf both (Fellowship, 159), he is drawn slowly towards selfishness and damnation in his possession of the ring. In The Fellowship of the Ring alone, Frodo nearly abandons his friends as he encounters the barrow wights, is wounded by a Morgul blade which threatens to transform him into a wraith and is compelled at the end of the first book to gaze into the eye of Sauron and let the ring be taken back to his master. The world of Middle-Earth stands in contest for the fate of Frodo’s soul. As Frodo stands invisible, compelled by the ring to give himself in, the imagery describes Frodo as literally being torn in two. “The two powers strove in him. For a moment, perfectly balanced between their piercing points, he writhed, tormented” (Fellowship 451). The greatest loss Frodo must experience however, is the erosion of his companions and friends. His friend’s concern for him encourages him on at the beginning, and later his concern for his friends leads him to abandon them, all save for Sam. The existence of the Fellowship mirrors a group of friends Tolkien belonged to as he entered into the military. They called themselves the TCBS, based on their names. In the battle of the Somme in July, 1916, one of their number, Robert Quilter Gilson, died. In response to this, Tolkien wrote to his friend, Geoffrey Bach Smith, “So far my chief impression is that something has gone crack. I feel just the same to both of you – nearer if anything and very much in need of you… but I don’t feel a member of a little complete body now. I honestly feel that the TCBS has ended… I feel a mere individual” (Garth 176). Later that year, another of Tolkien’s friends would die.
Frodo’s journey from the Shire into the bleak wastes of Mordor is easily paralleled with Tolkien’s experience at the Somme in July, 1916, characterizing it as his own personal hell. Tolkien admits, “The dead marshes and the approaches to the Morannon owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme” (Garth, 310). The eye of Sauron, the eye that follows him, symbolizes the ever-watchful eye of power, high, lofty, hungry for the chance to conquer and to gain more power. As Frodo encounters this vision of the eye in Galadriel’s mirror, he witnesses “rimmed with fire… and the black slit of its pupil [opens] on a pit, a window into nothing” (409). The imagery is that which represents a Christian hell. Tolkien envisions Frodo’s walk into Mordor as his odyssey into a figurative hell, manifesting his losses and torment in his environment. If such is true, then for Tolkien the Somme was his own, personal hell, a belief he transfers into The Lord of the Rings. In a moment that mirrors the events of the end of the Fellowship at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring Tolkien saw the point at which war breaks a person, when one is forced to feel alone in a journey that seems hopeless. That is the true power of the ring, a representative of power, conquering, domination, evil and war, to drive a being, such as in the case of Sméagol, to utter and complete loneliness built on the selfish desire to keep on surviving. After having succumbed to the ring completely, and after having witnessed its destruction, Frodo returns to the Shire and is plagued by sickness, in the same way a shell-shocked veteran’s mind can’t let go of his struggle, Frodo clutches at the memory of the ring around his neck, saying, “it is gone for ever… and now all is dark and empty” (Return of the King, 332). For Frodo and for Tolkien, their experience in war haunts them.
When asked if he were making allegory to World War II, Tolkien responded ruefully, “as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead” (Garth, 310). The experiences as portrayed in The Lord of The Rings mirrors this loss by degrees, presenting war as an ugly, destructive business conducted by creatures with too much power and portraying the plight of the soldier as a process by which the self is, by degrees, destroyed. Power, in the hands of the common Hobbit or the common soldier, is a process by which, irresistibly, the person loses the bonds of friendship and is brought into a self-loathing subsistence. Though the war ends for both Tolkien and Frodo, their corruption by the war haunts them like a disease, which time can never properly heal.
Garth, John. Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-Earth. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003. Print.
Tolkien, J. R. R. “On Fairy Stories.” The Monsters and the Critics, and Other Essays. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984. N. pag. Print.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. New York: Ballantine, 2001. Print.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. New York: Ballantine, 2001. Print.