The Rings and the Tempting, Corrupting Nature of Power in Fellowship of the Rings

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On September 13, 2005, many players of the MMORPG World of Warcraft found themselves logging in with their characters dead. This epidemic, known as the Corrupted Blood Incident, was linked to a small glitch in the game where players could get a debuff from a boss that ticked off one’s health rapidly, eventually killing them. People figured out a very specific way to spread it to the game’s capital cities, where chaos ensued. Some spent their time healing and curing others with ingame spells, while others acted as harbingers of the plague. The players at this time all held the power to shape a virtual world, whether with good by helping others, or bad by going out of their way to infect and kill other players. This same idea of power and its corrupting (and tempting) nature is represented in the The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien. There are twenty major Rings of Power in Middle Earth. Sauron, the Dark Lord, ordered their creation as a means of beguiling the world to evil. Three were intended for the elves, seven for dwarves, nine for humanity and one for himself to control all the rest. The One Ring, by nature, is more powerful than the rest. The fate of Middle Earth depends on Frodo, the ring-bearer, destroying the Ring so that Sauron does not get ahold of it again. One of the major themes in Tolkien’s novel is the corrupting and tempting nature of power, evident with the symbolism, tone and foreshadowing surrounding the aforementioned Rings of Power.

Power itself is heavily symbolized by the Rings of Power, or more specifically with the One Ring in the books’ universe, which is regarded as more powerful than anything comprehensible. The One Ring has an inscription written in ancient Elvish, the first lines of an ancient poem about the rings. The script can be translated to, “One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them / One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them. (Tolkien 67)” This poem makes it clear that the rings, especially the One, symbolizes power. Not only does it symbolize power, but the evil, corrupting and enticing side of it. Additionally, at the very end of the book when the nature of the rings is clear. After one of his fellow party members, Boromir, is overtaken by avarice for the Ring and confronts him. Frodo, resolute in his mission to destroy the Ring at all costs but horrified by Boromir nonetheless, slips it on, vanishing from sight and runs away. After running up a hill-top, Frodo sees a vision of war and destruction ravaging Middle-Earth, and the Eye of Sauron behind it all finally spotting him. After he throws himself to the ground in terror, Frodo begins to experience the Ring’s corruption stronger than ever before: He heard himself crying out: Never, never! Or was it: Verily I come, I come to you [Sauron]? 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 in which to do so. He took the Ring off his finger. (Tolkien 414) Before this point, the corruption and temptation was only what others had warned Frodo of, if not a few moments where he could not help but slip the Ring on. Now, those threats were a real thing. Frodo had but a few moments and an almost miraculous bit of willpower that he used to quell the urge and take off the Ring. However, the symbolism of the rings as power would not be possible without the strong tone associated with them.

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When spoken about, the rings are always spoken about in a dark yet magnificent tone, representing both corruption, and how easy it is to fall into its throes, no matter one’s scruples. Frodo again offers to give away the One Ring, this time to Lady Galadriel, one of the rulers of the Lothlórien Woods and all the elves that live there. She wields one of the Three Rings, Nenya, so she understands the burden of wielding such power. Even then, while being offered the One, she vividly describes the power she could brandish as her own: ‘And now at last it comes. You will give me the Ring freely! In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!’ (Tolkien 378)

Lady Galadriel as a character represents the goodness and purity of the elves. While being shown the One, the fact that she succumbs to thoughts such as usurping Sauron, the Dark Lord’s throne herself is hugely telling for the raw, corrupting powers the rings possess. She likens herself to various forces of nature to emphasize this glory. In the end, she proves her worthiness by vanquishing the temptation to seize such power. Furthermore, during the Council of Elrond, held by the half-elven Lord Elrond, Gandalf explains the fall of one of his fellow wizards, Saruman the White. Saruman graphically explains how majestic he and Gandalf could be together if they only used the One Ring together. However, Gandalf can see the wanton look behind his eyes, and quotes one particular piece of their conversation: “‘We may join with that Power. It would be wise, Gandalf. There is hope that way. Its victory is at hand; and there will be rich reward for those that aided it. As the Power grows, its proved friends will also grow; and the Wise, such as you and I, may with patience come at last to direct its courses, to control it. We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order; all the things that we have so far striven in vain to accomplish, hindered rather than helped by our weak or idle friends. There need not be, there would not be, any real change in our designs, only in our means.’” (Tolkien 274)

Saruman has caved into the corruption of the Ring’s power, or at least the prospect of it. He speaks of it as grand and illustrious, that he and Gandalf will be able to uphold their purpose as wizards with even more ease. Saruman also knows that the power he wants also comes with a price. He hints at it towards the end of the aforementioned quote, that he and Gandalf wouldn’t need to change their goal, only how they go about completing them. Saruman implying there is more to the Ring’s power is only one example of foreshadowing around them.

Power seems wonderful at first, but it can quickly corrupt and twist someone, and Tolkien foreshadows what might happen clearly in his novels. While staying in the Lothlórien Woods with Lady Galadriel, she shows Frodo her magical mirror, a silvery basin of water. The mirror allows whoever peers into it to see the future. The visions are oftentimes confounding to witness, but their message is clear. In his vision, Frodo sees the Eye of Sauron around a depiction of war: Then the Eye began to rove, searching this way and that; and Frodo knew with certainty and horror that among the many things that it sought he himself was one. But he also knew that it could not see him -- not yet, not unless he willed it. The Ring that hung upon its chain about his neck grew heavy, heavier than a great stone, and his head was dragged downwards. The Mirror seemed to be growing hot and curls of steam were rising from the water. He was slipping forward. (Tolkien 376)

While the vision is not fully addressed in The Fellowship of the Ring, rather in the other two parts of the trilogy, it’s easy enough to guess the meaning of it. Frodo’s ring, the One, grows heavy as he feels the weight of his responsibility as the ring-bearer. It only gets heavier as the scene gets progressively more chaotic and war-torn. The Ring is responsible for this corruption around Middle-Earth, for Sauron’s growing presence in it, and Frodo is feeling the weight of it all. On the other hand, the Ring’s tempting nature is foreshadowed by Boromir’s growing interest in it. His interest begins when the reader is first introduced to him, albeit very subtly. It eventually climaxes as the party is going down the Great River Anduin, when they are discussing destroying the Ring: Frodo caught something new and strange in Boromir’s glance, and he looked hard at him. Plainly Boromir’s thought was different from his final words. It would be folly to throw away: what? The Ring of Power? He had said something like this at the Council, but then he had accepted the correction of Elrond. (Tolkien 382) Boromir eventually confronts Frodo and threatens him for the One Ring.

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