However much I’m blown away by the sheer storytelling power of The Lord of the Rings (I think, once The Fellowship of the Ring gets into its stride, that first volume in particular is up there with the greats of pure adventure fiction, like The Lost World, Treasure Island, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), when the Ring’s darker, more subtle effects start to make themselves known (particularly in the second part of The Two Towers, with Frodo, Sam and Gollum journeying together) things, for me, step up a notch.
In ‘On Fairy Tales’, Tolkien calls Faerie ‘the Perilous Realm’, and his own most characteristic imaginative creations often have this quality of the ‘perilous’, in being alluring and fascinating, but also subtly dangerous. There are, though, different kinds of ‘perilous’ in The Lord of the Rings. Lothlórien is beautiful-perilous: paradisiacal and peaceful, but hazardous to those who are not pure in heart (‘only evil need fear it, or those who bring some evil with them’ — and who doesn’t bring at least some evil with them?), for they’ll have the darkest recesses of their heart laid bare by the Lady Galadriel. But while Lothlórien’s peril lies in the escape it offers from the world’s cares, Sauron’s Ring (not beautiful-perilous but powerful-perilous) offers a vastly different way of dealing with worldly troubles, the power to control or destroy them, and so is that much readier to draw out the evil from its bearers.
It also gives the One Ring not just a magical power in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, but a literary power in ours: the power to make two-dimensional characters three-dimensional. Possessing the Ring, or being tempted to possess it, draws out a character’s flaws and strengths. The simultaneous and contradictory desires to use the Ring’s powers and be free of its burden split characters in two. (At the Grey Havens, Gandalf talks of those hobbits who haven’t borne the Ring as being ‘one and whole’, in contrast to the inner division of those who have.)
When first encountered in The Hobbit, the Ring is simply a magic ring that turns its wearer invisible. But this is just the first stage in an ever more complex relationship between the Ring and its bearer, a tempting invitation to enter its world of power and fulfilment. Preying on the quite natural desire to hide, at times, from others, even in minor ways (Bilbo’s wanting to avoid annoying relatives, Gollum wanting to gather gossip and engage in petty theft), it soon becomes a guilty secret, poisonously entwined with its bearer’s very identity. In the first part of The Fellowship of the Ring, ownership of the Ring is all about keeping secrets and not being seen. It isn’t to be named or spoken of, even to one’s closest friends, and the enemy who seeks it is embodied as the most obvious symbol of the opposite of being hidden:
‘The Eye: that horrible growing sense of a hostile will that strove with great power to pierce all shadows of cloud, and earth, and flesh, to see you: to pin you under its deadly gaze, naked, immovable.’
Gollum, who, like Renfield in Dracula, is the human (or hobbit) summation of the Ring’s powers of degradation, is so sensitive to being seen that he flees the sun and the moon — ‘the Yellow Face’ and ‘the White Face’ as he calls them — because they are, to him, seeing things. It’s as if, despite owning a ring that makes him invisible, he needs to invest the world with watching, knowing eyes as an excuse to escape even further. He hides in the deepest, darkest caves beneath the Misty Mountains because ‘The Sun could not watch me there.’
Similarly, when Frodo is asked to produce the Ring at the Council of Elrond:
‘He was shaken by a sudden shame and fear; and he felt a great reluctance to reveal the Ring, and a loathing of its touch.’
That shame is the result of being seen — and feeling, in the gaze of those who look at you, how far you’ve already been seduced by the Ring’s promises of power.
But what power does the Ring promise? We know destroying it will not only lay waste to all that Sauron has built up, but Lothlórien too, as though the One Ring has power over all that is ‘perilous’, both the beautiful and the powerful, but what actual abilities does it confer on its wielder? As far as I recall, we only get one concrete, though not obvious, example of its use in The Lord of the Rings, immediately after Gollum attacks Frodo on the slopes of Mount Doom. Gripping the Ring, Frodo says:
‘If you touch me ever again, you shall be cast yourself into the Fire of Doom.’
And the next time Gollum touches Frodo, that’s exactly what happens. After biting off Frodo’s finger, Gollum falls into the volcano’s fire pit. Did he trip, or was he obeying Frodo’s final command as Ring-bearer?
But, whatever the details, we know what the Ring’s power ultimately is. The Ring allows you to impose your will on others, and on the world. The Ring allows you to have your own way.
Gollum is certainly the most interesting character in The Lord of the Rings, if only because he’s the most duplicitous. Thanks to the Ring’s starkly polarising effect, he’s both Gollum and Sméagol (or Slinker and Stinker as Sam has it), always debating with himself, self-divided, and so that much more isolated from the undivided normal people. And while one side of Gollum is drawn to the possibility of trust and fellowship (with Frodo at least, being a fellow victim of the Ring), the other wants to get the Ring back, preferably served with a generous dollop of gleeful revenge.
Fritz Leiber has criticised Tolkien for being ‘not really interested in the villains unless they’re just miserable sneaks, bullies and resentful cowards…’ But it would be fairer to say this is the sort of villainy Tolkien is most interested in — a far more human-level (or hobbit-level) villainy than the vast and abstract evil of Sauron. Sauron, I don’t think, is that interesting, at least in terms of character. (Evil is a diminution of humanity, not a deepening of it.) We get only one direct glimpse of Sauron as an actual person, when Pippin looks into the Orthanc Palantír, and when he speaks he sounds disappointingly formal and suave, like a Dennis Wheatley Satanist:
‘Wait a moment! We shall meet again soon. Tell Saruman that this dainty is not for him. I will send for it at once. Do you understand? Say just that!’
It is, rather, the effects of evil on lesser, more human, creatures that Tolkien wants to explore:
‘Work of the Enemy!’ said Gandalf. ‘Such deeds he loves: friend at war with friend; loyalty divided in confusion of hearts.’
And Gollum, being self-divided and at war with himself, is the ultimate vision of what Tolkien is warning against: not an absolute, pure and abstract evil, but a corruption of the soul.
The forces of ‘good’ in The Lord of the Rings are equally human in scale (whether hobbit, elf, dwarf or man). Tolkien’s ‘good’ is about striving towards what is right, with a free and often uncertain will, about doing one’s best and accepting that you may make mistakes. (Frodo at one point says ‘All my choices have proved ill.’ Aragorn says something similar, and both Gandalf and Sam express grave doubts about what they should be doing at key moments.) The true evil of Sauron’s Ring comes from the way it allows its bearer to deny their own humanity, their essential weakness, thanks to its overwhelming power. The Ring is abstract power, and is defeated in the end by the most ‘human’ (fallible, weak, self-doubting, powerless) characters, the hobbits.
The Lord of the Rings is, then, a book in praise of human weakness, and — particularly in the third book, The Return of the King — a sort of paean to endurance in the face of unrelenting despair. A moral, though not a moralistic, book, it’s about the ultimate triumph of ‘Pity, and Mercy’, of ‘understanding, making, and healing’ (which are the aims of the three Elven Rings) as opposed to ‘Knowledge, Rule, Order’ (Saruman’s ‘high and ultimate purpose’), or Sauron’s ‘One Ring to bind them’ totalitarianism. It’s a book that has long outlasted the immediate allegorical interpretations of the age in which it was written (Sauron as Hitler, the Ring as the Atom Bomb) to remain relevant in a world where abstract power has become an end in itself (say anything so long as they vote for you, then do whatever you want once you’re in), and where a whole political class of doubt-inducing Wormtongues and sweet-talking Sarumans seem to have taken over. What we need right now is an Ent or two to tear down a few ivory towers! Or, better still, a Gandalf to offer some withering comments and a little magical, perilous-but-revealing light. If nothing else, at least The Lord of the Rings tells us that we small folk, we hobbits of the human world, can make a difference even in such doubtful times, against such vast odds, in the face of such peril.