At the heart of the story is the ring and it is the ring of power. Lord of the Rings is a story about power. And it is a story about the corrupting nature of power. The ring symbolises power. And the ring corrupts those who come into contact with it. It deceives and it ensnares. Above all, humanity – ‘the race of men’ as the book keeps calling them – cannot be trusted with power.
In the ancient past rings are made; rings of power. They are given to the elves, the dwarves and the race of men. They are given power to reign. But they are deceived. They think power and autonomy will be better; that it will bring freedom. But power and autonomy destroy them. In the race of men more than any others power corrupts.
The nine kings to whom the nine rings are given become the Ringwraiths or the Nazgûl. Neither dead, nor alive, these terrifying, black, hooded figures pursue Frodo throughout the story. They have become servants of Lord Sauron and they carry out his tyrannical rule.
This is repeated when Isildur has the chance to destroy the ring and free the world of its evil forever. But instead Isildur keeps it. The lure of power is too strong for him to resist.
The lure of the ring affects other races. At different points in the story Frodo offers the ring to Gandalf who proves to be the leading wizard and to Galadriel who is the leading elf and a bearer of one of the three rings given to the elves.
When Frodo offers Gandalf the ring, Gandalf replies: ‘Don’t tempt me Frodo. I dare not take it, not even to keep it safe. Understand Frodo, I would use this ring from a desire to do good. But through me it would wield power too great and terrible to imagine.’ Even power taken with good intentions corrupts and destroys.
And when Frodo offers Galadriel the ring, she says: ‘Instead of a dark Lord, you would have a queen – beautiful and terrible as the dawn, treacherous as the sea, stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair.’
Both Gandalf and Galadriel see what would become of them if they possessed the ring. It would make them great, all-powerful. But power itself would control them and corrupt them. They would become tyrants. Galadriel sees that she would be loved by all, but it would transform her into a demagogue. The temptation is great, but they resist. Galadriel says: ‘I pass the test’.
But in the race of men the desire for power and control forms a fundamental weakness. In The Fellowship of the Ring the weakness of humanity is typified in the character of Boromir played by Sheffield’s own Sean Bean. Boromir is a hero and he dies a hero’s death defending the hobbits. But the desire for power is the dark heart of his character; a weakness that jeopardises the quest of the fellowship.
This is real life. We see it in political life. Freedom fighters become tyrants. Yesterday’s oppressed become today’s oppressors when they get power. But you may have experienced it in the office, in the workplace, in the home. Human beings cannot handle power. Power is our doom. Did you notice, just before Boromir addresses the council of Elrond that the ring itself seems to speak and whispers ‘the doom of men’. Power is the doom of men because we are flawed. At one point Aragorn says to Frodo that he has vowed to protect him and Frodo replies, ‘Can you protect me from yourself?’ We cannot wield power over others because we cannot control ourselves.
What Tolkien is doing is dramatically confronting us with the truth about ourselves. Gandalf says: ‘It is in men that we must put our hope’. But Elrond replies: ‘Men are weak … the strength of men has failed.’ We are flawed beings – fatally flawed.
Genesis 3:1-7 says:
Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’ ” “You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realised that they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.’
In Romans 5:12 the Apostle Paul says: ‘… sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned …’
The Serpent offers us freedom, power, control, autonomy. But it is a lie. The Serpent represents Satan (Satan-Sauron). The Serpent makes ‘the race of men’ doubt the goodness of God’s rule. Satan portrays God’s rule as harsh and restrictive. He makes God out to be a tyrant. But it is a lie. God’s rule was a rule of freedom, joy, prosperity and security (Genesis 2:8-9).
And so humanity rejects God’s rule. We decide to become like gods – determining for ourselves what is right and what is wrong. We push God off his throne. We seize power for ourselves. We want to be in control of our own lives. We think we will be free.
But we have shaped human rule in the image of Satan’s lie. The rule of God was a rule of freedom and blessing. The lie of Satan was that God’s rule is tyrannical. And we do not use our freedom and power like God’s rule. We rule like Satan’s lie. We rule harshly and tyrannically.
The giving of the rings to the nine kings is a like a retelling of the story of Genesis 3. They think that taking hold of power will set them free. But they become the living dead. And the failure of Isildur to destroy the ring is like a repeat of that story.
This misuse of power also affects the land. In Genesis 3 the land is cursed. Humanity was to rule over creation in a way that caused the earth to flourish. But now we destroy the world. We see this in pollution, deforestation, global warming and so on. Long before anyone had heard of the environmental movement, Tolkien was alert to these issues. The fate of Isengard, the home of Saruman, acts as a picture of this.
When we first see Isengard it is a beautiful, tranquil forest. But under the corrupt rule of Saruman it becomes an industrial wasteland. Humanity’s corrupt rule affects not only people, but God’s good creation. We see this in Genesis 3 itself. See 3:17-19. And this is the fate of the Shire – the home of the hobbits – if anyone rules by the ring of power.
The Shire is presented as a kind of paradise – paradise at its most romantic and, dare I say, sentimental. But what haunts Frodo’s dreams more than anything else is the fate of the Shire if the ring is used to rule.
We have become what Gandalf and Galadriel saw they would be become. We have become tyrants. We have created a world full of evil and suffering. We think we will be free is we live without God, but we end up enslaved. We enslave one another. We enslave ourselves. None of us are not free to live the life we were made for. We cannot be the people we want to be, let alone the people we should be. Our freedom and power destroy us.