A Theme Of Corruption Of Power In The Lord Of The Rings
The Lord of the Rings has survived decades, spanned language barriers, and spoken to generations of people. J.R.R Tolkien managed to convey themes and ideas that have remained relevant (despite being published over half a century ago) through the lens of a fantasy world of magic, hobbits, elves, good, and evil. A clear theme throughout The Lord of the Rings is how power is corrupting and addicting. The corrupting power of the One Ring can be analyzed by studying how Tolkien’s past impacted his literary decisions, the way the One Ring is portrayed in the series, and how the theme of the corrupting influence of power is still relevant in contemporary American society.
Tolkien used the One Ring to convey the ultimate corrupting power of evil, a literary decision that makes more sense when you analyze his past. Tolkien was a war veteran, like many men of his generation he fought in World War I. He was part of the Battle of Somme, a brutal fight with heavy casualties, and after the war most of his friends were dead. Tolkien also worked at a codebreaker during World War II. While it is inaccurate to label the One Ring as a metaphor for war, Tolkien’s experience in the military changed him. The One Ring is not a symbol for the Nazis or the Atomic Bomb, this is part of why The Lord of the Rings has lived through the years: the Ring can be applied to many different situations. However, no matter the person the experiences they live through, especially the traumatic encounters, end up shaping them and their world view. Tolkien saw the world he was living in very clearly — he lived and fought in two World Wars and he saw his friends die while he lived. It would be absurd to suggest these traumatic experiences had no effect on his writing. The One Ring represents a theme (corrupting power) many writers from this era were picking up on; from George Orwell to William Golding authors who lived through death and destruction represent it in some way or another in their books.
One of the most interesting aspects of the One Ring is the influence it has over various characters. Gandalf makes clear that no matter who holds the One Ring, the power of it will eventually destroy them. The power the Ring has over characters is psychological at heart; it twists the creature’s inner-feelings to work for the Ring. In addition, it acts more like an addiction than anything else. Specific case studies to look at the Ring’s addiction include Bilbo, Gollum, and Boromir. When analyzing the Ring’s effect on characters the most obvious comparison to make is an addiction. Bilbo is the first character we see the Ring’s power over. Bilbo intends to leave to travel again and bequeath the Ring to Frodo. However, Bilbo has extreme difficulty parting with it when he goes to actually leave the Ring behind. “‘I won’t give away my Precious away, I tell you.’ His hand strayed to the hilt of his small sword.” (Tolkien 34). Bilbo is depicted ready to fight his friend, Gandalf, instead of parting with the Ring. However, Bilbo’s addiction to the Ring is not that serious, as he only used it a few times. This is why he is eventually able to willing give up the Ring.
On the other end of the spectrum, Gollum’s addiction to the Ring’s power is very intense. African-American Muslim groups that rose to prominence lead by the likes of Malcolm X, were well known for being able to get addicts to stop using drugs. Their methods were so effective in his autobiography Malcolm X wrote about how Muslim groups were approached by drug rehabitalition centers for advice on how to curb addiction. The process to get an addict to stop using was long but it centered around forcing the addict to not use again because they would be constantly surrounded by Muslim brothers/sisters to help during the withdrawal period. This is similar to what happened to Gollum. As Gandalf describes the Ring’s hold over Gollum, he says “‘He Gollum hated it and he loved it, as he hated and loved himself. He could not get rid of it. He had no will left in the matter.” Gandalf is describing an addiction. When the Ring was under Gollum’s power, he called himself Gollum and the Ring “his precious”. As he underwent a long period of time without the Ring (when he was captured) he started referring to himself as his original name, Sméagol. Gollum was forced to be without his drug of choice, which eventually started leading to him shaking of its hold. Due to the amount of time Gollum spent wearing the Ring, he is never able to fully shake the Ring’s hold on him. Furthermore, Gollum does not want to separate himself from the Ring as he is so addicted to its power.
Lastly, another example of the Ring being an addiction is to Boromir at the end of the Fellowship of the Ring. Even during the Council of Elrond, Boromir is hesitant to destroy the Ring believing it can be used to fight Sauron. During the Breaking of the Fellowship, Boromoir attacks Frodo trying to convince Frodo to give him the Ring. However, once Frodo fleas in fear, Boromir releases what he did was evil and calls to Frodo, “‘What have I done? Frodo, Frodo!… Come back! A madness took me, but it has passed. Come back!’” (Tolkien 400). Boromir is a warrior, so the Ring appeals to his need to be a powerful leader. However, he is not addicted to the Ring’s power (as Gollum was) shown his latter realization that he attacked Frodo and that was wrong.
The reason The Lord of the Rings has become a cornerstone of popular culture is that it is timeless. The themes present in Fellowship of the Ring were not exclusive to Tolkien’s generation, they still are relevant in contemporary American society. The Founding Fathers envisioned the presidency as a rather weak position, however, in our post-FDR America Presidents have consistently held immense power. As Lord Acton said “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men”. This is clearly applicable to the United States presidency. When we think about corruption in the Oval Office, a clear example of this is the quid pro quo the Trump administration created with Ukraine. Using the presidency for political gain by launching an investigation into Hunter Biden clearly is an overstep of presidential powers. Mick Mulvaney, acting White House Chief of Staff, admitted the quid pro quo’s existence. This is a perfect example of a president being corrupted by power; President Trump tried to use his position to damage the standing of his most prominent opponent in the 2020 election. As stated before, the One Ring is not a metaphor for the Atomic Bomb which makes the The Lord of the Rings span generations. The One Ring in the The Lord of the Rings is a clear metaphor for how addicting power is. The ability for the One Ring to be compared to a President who holds power decades after the The Lord of the Rings shows how the literary genius of J.R.R Tolkien.
In conclusion, Tolkien was influenced by his experience as a war veteran to write about the dichotomy between good/evil, the One Ring symbolized addicting power, and the theme of addicting power is still relevant in contemporary American society. Tolkien’s works are still worth reading/learning about as the themes he presented live on.
- Shippey, Tom. J.R.R Tolkien Author of the Century. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002.
- Tolkien, J. R. R. The Fellowship of the Ring. Harper Collins Publishers, 2004.
- X., Malcolm, and Alex Haley. Malcolm X: The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Ballantine Books, 1965.
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