One Ring

by J. R. R. Tolkien

Original Language English

Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
     Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
     One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
     One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
     One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

-- from The Lord of the Rings: One Vol. Edition, by J.R.R. Tolkien

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Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

When I was a young teenager, thirteen, fourteen, several friends told me I had to read The Lord of the Rings. I loved high fantasy. A story was only made better by adding swords, in my opinion, and possibly a dragon or two. But, you know, I just wasn't patient enough for Tolkien's long tale. Sure, there are some big battles and the occasional bit of wizardly magic, but a lot of it is just about a very long walk. I couldn't hold my young interest much past Tom Bombadil's antics in the forest.

It wasn't until a little over a decade ago, when the first advertisements for Peter Jackson's movie versions started appearing, that I figured I should read the books before the movies came out. So I finally returned to The Lord of the Rings, but with an adult's patience. This time I was utterly enchanted by the story! Yes, it has lots of the fantasy elements that appeal to the fourteen-year-old Ivan, but I found that the long slow passages really spoke to me too. So much of The Lord of the Rings is a meditation on the life and character of the land. Some of it reads like a hike with a group of naturalists.

We have a brutally utilitarian view of everything in the industrial worldview. We've trained ourselves to see things in terms of how we can make use of them: what we can get, what we can make, what we can control. As a society, we don't see an ancient forest as a living being with its own history and memory and right to exist; we look at it as an undefined wild space that must be "civilized" and brought under control... made "useful" somehow.

I think this is part of what J. R. R Tolkien was writing about in The Lord of the Rings -- the instinct to dominate, willfully turning from the natural world and those who live close to the natural world. The One Ring represents this instinct in its most concentrated form.

A little about Tolkien's mythology--

In Tolkien's world, the elves forged three rings of power, but they used their rings to preserve their serene vision of the world. This was perhaps a fault, since they used that power to maintain a lovely, enchanted, but unchanging world in their realms. They tried to fight the inevitable change of time. But because they did not desire dominance, they were not vulnerable to the influence of the dark lord's One Ring.

The Dwarves tended towards greed, but they used their rings primarily for craft and feats of engineering. Though not the most noble use, they weren't motivated by the desire for power over others. Being a hard folk, they too were not easily controlled by the evil of the One Ring.

But "Mortal Men" never seem able to accept what Tolkien calls the "gift" of death. They seek longer life at any cost. And, psychologically, life is not only measured in the span of years, but also in how significant one's presence becomes in the world. In their desperation to evade mortality, Men's hearts grow dark and hungry to rule.

And so it is in Tolkien's world that Men, while having the greatest potential for unexpected good, are also the most prone to evil. The nine Men who held rings of power inevitably became slaves to the One Ring. So we get those terrible, echoing lines--

One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
     One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them

The journey of The Lord of the Rings is a long meditation on a fundamental human dilemma: How do we unmake a weapon we cannot wield? Many talk of the Ring as an allegory of the atom bomb. That's a good idea, but Tolkien actually started writing the story well before WWII and the invention of atomic weapons. More broadly, the Ring represents blind power and the reflex to dominate. So industrialized weapons certainly have something of the Ring in them. But so too does anything that gives us casual power over other people and the world without requiring us to first feel and know the life we are affecting. Anything that gives us easy power without deep rooted responsibility inevitably corrupts. We possess more than one Ring in the world today. And, of course, the template for the Ring resides within the dark regions of our own psyches. Tolkien asks us, Can we ever unmake such a thing?


...Contemplating shadows during the eclipse.

Recommended Books: J. R. R. Tolkien

The Lord of the Rings: One Vol. Edition

One Ring