Temptation and Power in Lord of the Rings

In honor of seeing the most recent Hobbit movie trailer, this from the defunct Hobbits and Heroes course at DU. This lecturette, “Temptation and Power,” I thought would be be apropos reading after seeing a trailer from a movie called The Battle of Five Armies. As usual, feel free to treat the comments as Discussion Boards mentioned here.  ~Jenn

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Temptation and the Ring of Power

“For where am I to go? And by what shall I steer? What is to be my quest? Bilbo went to find a treasure, there and back again; but I go to lose one, and not return, as far as I can see.”

The One Ring of Power is the center of all the action in The Lord of the Rings.  Made by the Dark Lord, Sauron, it contains a good part of his power.  With it, Sauron could enslave the known world.  The only way to ensure this does not happen is to destroy it.  Of course, being a “magic” ring, it’s no small feat: a volcano in the heart of Mordor is the only place wherein the Ring would actually melt—all other earthly fire doesn’t cut it.

Also, being a “magic” ring, it passes from hand to hand with a force seemingly of its own.  The One Ring is perhaps the central character of the story—witness Gandalf’s talk about it in the beginning of Fellowship:  he speaks of it choosing to be found, it slipping off Isildur’s finger at an opportune moment, it realizing it would not ever be out in the world again if it stayed with Gollum.  The Ring, it seems, has a will of its own, which adheres to the will of any being who wields it: Frodo cannot throw it into his fire, even after he has just heard from Gandalf the scope of its evil.  It acts on the spirit as an addiction, and its movements from person to person has everything to do with temptation and desire for power.

The first we hear of the Ring’s real properties is in The Fellowship of the Ring; Gandalf returns to Frodo after Bilbo’s disappearance and explains his discovery.  The story of the One Ring’s movements begins with Isildur, heir to the man that helped defeat Sauron, taking the Ring from the battlefield and wielding it against Sauron, later dying in a river when the Ring (by accident or design) fell from his finger, rendering him visible to orcs.  Did the Ring choose to betray Isildur?  It certainly seems as though it chooses its own movements to an extent—perhaps just the evil will that Sauron left in it makes it have its own momentum.

What does the Ring do to an immortal?

Gandalf says, “Don’t tempt me!” when offered the Ring, and tries his best not to touch it.  He knows his wish would be to use it for pity—for using its strength to help the weak.  Galadriel, too, imagines the powerful good she would possess if she wielded the Ring, then in her rapture describes the terrifying queen she would become.  Wryly, she realizes she has “passed the test,” and refuses it, even though its destruction means the fading of Lothlorien, and the power of her own Ring.  Tom Bombadil, claims Gandalf, would forget about it, throw it away carelessly, to let it be found by anyone (more on the mystery of Tom Bombadil in the discussion board this week).

In other words, an immortal (Elf or Dwarf  or Istari [wizard]) would soon become a Sauron himself.  In fact, Sauron is himself an Istari (the Maiar, or demi-gods of Middle-earth), just like Gandalf.  We can see, therefore, exactly what would become of Gandalf if the Ring got hold of him.  Galadriel saw the terrible power possible in her when she encountered the Ring-Bearer for the first time.  Both these immortals, because they are wise and good, leave the Ring alone.  We do not come across a Dwarf in the Ring’s throes—as immortals younger than Elves and in love with gold, we can only assume the fate for a Dwarf under the Ring’s spell would be similar to that of an Elf, but this particular temptation does not occur in the epic.  Perhaps Dwarves are just too bluff and hard-headed, eh?

What does the Ring do to a mortal?

Men (humans) and hobbits are the mortal races on Middle-earth, and hobbits, it seems, have much longer life-spans The_one_ringthan Men.  Gandalf tells Frodo in no uncertain terms what happens to humans under the Ring’s power: they cannot die, as is natural; they fade, becoming permanently invisible, and become slaves of the Ring: Ring-Wraiths.  The nine kings of Men (no doubt heroic dudes in their day) who possessed the Nine Mortal Rings, came under the power of the One, and what has happened to them?  Why, they’re snuffling, shrieking Black Riders now, slaves to Sauron but more importantly, slaves to the Ring Frodo carries.  So why isn’t Gollum a Ring-Wraith?

What does the Ring do to a hobbit?

When Smeagol the hobbit-ancestor comes across the Ring, he murders his friend to possess it.  Wielding it often, he degenerates into Gollum, living far too long and ending up twisted beyond recognition as a hobbit of any kind.  Gollum acts like an addict: he thinks about his “precious” constantly, talking to it; he can’t wear it very often but cannot leave it alone either; as Gandalf says, “he hated it and loved it, as he hated and loved himself.”  More accurate than the multiple-personality portrayal done so effectively in the recent films, is I think Gollum’s utter and complete addiction to the Ring.  Everything else stems from this.  The only reason Gollum is not a wraith is that hobbits are notoriously (and surprisingly to some) a remarkably resilient, tough race.  The only reason he is still alive is the Ring, and it says much that the good folk who come across Gollum do not kill him (Bilbo does not out of pity, Gandalf does not out of a hunch), because his fate is connected directly to the Ring.  We will see in the later books just how much the Gollum-Ring connection is essential to the success of Frodo’s Quest.

“A Ring of Power looks after itself, Frodo. It may slip off treacherously, but its keeper never abandons it. At most he plays with the idea of handing it on to someone else’s care—and that only at an early stage, when it first begins to grip. But as far as I know Bilbo alone in history has ever gone beyond playing, and really done it. He needed all my help, too. And even so he would never have just forsaken it, or cast it aside. It was not Gollum, Frodo, but the Ring itself that decided things. The Ring left him.”

So claims Gandalf the Wise.  Therefore, the Ring’s objective through this story is to find its maker, its master, and woe be to any who comes in its way.  And our understanding of the characters we meet along the way comes directly from how they react to the temptation of the Ring.  Look at how Gandalf and Galadriel react to it, look at Boromir and then Faramir’s decision regarding it (a big flaw of the films, I say).  Look at Frodo along his quest, watch him crumble under its influence, then look at the wretched, centuries-old Gollum, following him.  Those who are not tempted by such an “easy out” to power, or those who are tempted and resist, have the stuff of heroes in them, and those who give themselves to it, lose themselves utterly.

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