4.4. The Effect of the Ring

In this section I shall examine the way in which the Ring works on some of the characters in The Lord of the Rings. The Ring works in different ways, exploiting the individual hopes and fears, strengths and weaknesses of the characters who encounter it. In this way it demonstrates the adaptability of evil to seek out a path to an individual by means of which it can work

4.4.1. On Gandalf

Not even Gandalf, one of the Istari, is able to avoid the temptation of the Ring. When it is offered to him by Frodo he dares not contemplate taking it.

    "With that power I should have power too great and terrible. And over me the Ring would gain a power still greater and more deadly....Do not tempt me! For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself. Yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good. Do not tempt me! I dare not take it, not even to keep it safe, unused. The wish to wield it would be too great for my strength. I shall have such need of it. Great perils lie before me." [135]

This is the only time that we see Gandalf confronted by the Ring and the only enunciation of any weakness that he might have. But it shows that not even an angelic character is immune from the Ring's power, and he repeats his rejection of the Ring in response to Elrond's comment "I will not take the Ring to wield it." [136]

Tolkien was of the view that Gandalf would have been a worse Ringlord than Sauron. He would have been righteous but self-righteous, He would have rules and ordered things for good, and for the benefit of his subjects according to his wisdom [137]. And therein lies the trap, for Gandalf would be the controller and determinator. His subjects would have no choice, and the Ring would control rather than give free will and free choice.

4.4.2. On Bilbo

I have already commented upon the way in which Bilbo came by the Ring, and how, by exercising pity and mercy, he substantially postponed any ill-effects that the Ring might have had upon him. In The Hobbit the Ring is essentially a "magic token" capable of making the wearer invisible, and it allows Bilbo to accomplish a number of goals that he would not otherwise have been capable of accomplishing [138]. However, in The Lord of the Rings Gandalf has become aware of the fact that Bilbo has a Ring of Power, although it is not until he throws the Ring in the fire at Bag End that he knows for sure that the Ring is indeed the One.

The effect of the Ring upon Bilbo was to keep him "well-preserved" or "unchanged". He used the Ring as a convenience [139] or for a joke [140]. He never used the Ring as a means of control or power, even if he had been able to. But there is no doubt that he is willing to part with the Ring as the result of the persuasion of Gandalf. Bilbo realises that all is not well, although he cannot attribute those feelings to the Ring. He describes himself as "thin, sort of stretched....like butter that has been scraped over too much bread" [141]

When Bilbo is confronted with the issue of whether or not he has in fact parted with the Ring, he stammers and pre-varicates and then finds that he has put it in his pocket. In The Lord of the Rings this is viewed as Bilbo having difficulty parting with the Ring, because of the hold that the Ring had over him. In an earlier version [142] the matter was put in this way;

    "On that last evening I plainly saw that the ring was trying to keep hold of him and prevent his parting with it. But he was not yet conscious of it himself. And certainly he had no idea that it would make him permanently invisible."

Clearly this is a reference to what I have described earlier in this paper as "the mind of the Ring" playing a part. It is not as directly put in The Lord of the Rings although Gandalf, in his first long conversation with Frodo about the Ring refers to the power of the Ring to expand or shrink, which is clearly a more subtle indication of the "mind of the Ring" and its power of betrayal.

As Bilbo faces the reality of parting company with the Ring, he becomes aggressive and asserts his right to hold onto it. He describes it as his "precious", echoing Gollum's words. In his desire to retain the Ring he has become small, mean and defensive. Yet he manages to put such mood behind him, and evidences self-realisation of his plight;

    "And yet it would be a relief in a way not to be bothered with it any more. It has been so growing on my mind lately. Sometimes I have felt it was like an eye looking at me. And I am always wanting to put it on and disappear, don't you know; or wondering if it is safe, and pulling it out to make sure. I tired locking it up, but I found I couldn't rest without it in my pocket. I don't know why. And I don't seem to be able to make up my mind." [143]

Just as he leaves, Gandalf reminds Bilbo that he still has the Ring. Bilbo comments that it is with his Will and all his other documents. He suggests that Gandalf take them. Gandalf refuses, saying that Bilbo should put the items on the mantelpiece. But even at this stage, Bilbo has difficulty. The packet falls to the floor, and before Bilbo can do anything about it, Gandalf has picked the packet up and placed it on the mantle. There was a spasm of anger which passed over Bilbo's face, followed by a look of relief.

Thus Bilbo is able to physically part with the Ring. However, the psychological dependence remains. Gandalf alludes to this;

    "Of course, he possessed the ring for many years, and used it, so it might take a long while for the influence to wear off - before it was safe for him to see it again, for instance." [144]

Gandalf's assessment is quite correct. Bilbo hungers for the Ring, even at Rivendell. He persuades Frodo to let him see it but as he does so, he appears to Frodo as;

    "a little wrinkled creature with a hungry face and bony groping hands. He felt a desire to strike him." [145]

However, with the passage of time, Bilbo's desire for the Ring becomes weaker. When the Hobbits return to Rivendell after the destruction of the Ring, Bilbo asks Frodo if he still has the Ring, and is told, of course, that it has been destroyed. A generous inference could be that Bilbo's memory has been affected by his advancing years. Yet the insidious pull of the Ring, although destroyed, still works upon him.

Bilbo's ability to give up the Ring derives partly from the way in which it came into his possession, partly from the fact that he did not put it to bad use, and to a large part from his hobbitish nature. The toughness of will is what allowed Bilbo to make the choice to give up the Ring, and enabled him, ultimately, to part with it without harm. At the same time, the way the Ring works upon Bilbo demonstrates the hold that the evil object can obtain over an individual, with destructive consequences for the character. Bilbo, for a moment or two, becomes like Gollum. Gollum, who is almost totally corrupted by his desire for the Ring, for a moment or two displays admirable traits of tenderness. Gollum's snivelling covetousness is what Bilbo could have become, but fortunately does not.

4.4.3. On Galadriel

Galadriel is the bearer of one of the Three. She makes the comment;

    "I perceive the Dark Lord and know his mind, or all of his mind that concerns the Elves. And he gropes ever to see me and my thought. But still the door is closed." [146]

Frodo, as she says this, perceives Nenya, the Ring of Adamant. It could not be hidden from the Ring bearer who had seen the Eye of Sauron. Galadriel made the comment that the destruction of the Ring would diminish the power of the Elves, and Lothlorien would fade. Those Elves who did not go to the West would "dwindle to a rustic folk of dell and cave, slowly to forget and be forgotten."147

Frodo asks Galadriel for what it is that she wishes. Essentially, Galadriel is resigned to her fate - "that what should be shall be" [148] but if it were of any use, her wish is that the One had never been wrought, or had remained lost. At this point, Frodo offers to give her the Ring, if she would ask for it. He comments that it is too great a matter for him. In a way Frodo is being tempted - to pass the Ring on to a person of power. But the real temptation is for Galadriel. She could wield the Ring, and preserve her domain. Essentially her wish would be granted, for she could guard the Ring. She confronts the challenge, analyses her desires and rejects them. She demonstrates the consideration and weighing up of choices and the exercise of free will, even although the course of ultimate good will cause her personal diminishment.

    " 'I do not deny that my heart has greatly desired to ask what you offer. For many long years I had pondered what I might do, should the Great Ring come into my hands, and behold! It was brought within my grasp. The evil that was devised long ago works on in many ways, whether Sauron himself stands or falls. Would not that have been a noble deed to set to the credit of his Ring, if I had taken it by force or fear from my guest?
    And now at last it comes. You will give me the Ring freely! In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!'
    She lifted up her hand and from the ring that she wore there issued a great light that illuminated her alone and left all else dark. She stood before Frodo seeming now tall beyond measurement, and beautiful beyond enduring, terrible and worshipful. Then she let her hand fall, and the light faded, and suddenly she laughed again, and lo! she was shrunken: a slender elf-woman, clad in simple white, whose gentle voice was soft and sad.
    'I pass the test,' she said. 'I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.' " [149]

In Letters, Tolkien comments as follows;

    "it was part of the essential deceit of the Ring to fill minds with imaginations of supreme power. But this the Great had well considered and had rejected, as is seen in Elrond's word at the Council. Galadriel's rejection of the temptation was founded upon previous thought and resolve. In any case Elrond or Galadriel would have proceeded in the policy now adopted by Sauron: they would have built up an empire with great and absolutely subservient generals and armies and engines of war, until they could confront Sauron and destroy him by force. Confrontation of Sauron alone, unaided, self to self was not contemplated. One can imagine the scene in which Gandalf, say, was placed in such a position. It would be a delicate balance. On one side the true allegiance of the Ring to Sauron; on the other superior strength because Sauron was not actually in possession, and perhaps also because he was weakened by long corruption and expenditure of will in dominating inferiors. If Gandalf proved the victor, the result would have been for Sauron the same as the destruction of the Ring; for him it would have been destroyed, taken from him for ever. But the Ring and all its works would have endured. It would have been the master in the end." [150]

4.4.4. On Boromir

As I have observed in more detail above, Boromir saw the Ring as a weapon, and as a means of overcoming the Enemy. In this perception, he failed to understand the true nature of the Ring. His whole approach to the Ring does not change

    "Why do you speak ever of hiding and destroying? Why should we not think that the Great Ring has come into our hands to serve us in the very hour of need? Wielding it the Free Lords of the Free may surely defeat the Enemy. That is what he most fears, I deem.
    The Men of Gondor are valiant, and they will never submit; but they may be beaten down. Valour needs first strength, and then a weapon. Let the Ring be your weapon, if it has such power as you say. Take it and go forth to victory." [151]

At this stage, Boromir does not see he himself wielding the Ring, and in a sense his attitude is that of a soldier, looking for victory. It is only when he is confronted with the chance to seize the Ring from Frodo on Amon Hen that his vision becomes a personal one.

4.4.5. On Faramir

Faramir presents as the other side of Boromir, and essentially shows us what Boromir could have been. He is a descendant of the Men of Numenor, and the guardian of Numenorean traditions [152].

Faramir is totally dedicated, totally loyal and totally fair. When confronted with the suggestion that he was trying to snare Frodo with a falsehood, he comments "I would not snare even an orc with a falsehood" [153] His questioning of Frodo is careful and courteous, although he presses hard about Isildur's Bane, for which action he apologises. He knows that it is a token of power and suspects "that Isildur took somewhat from the hand of the Unnamed, ere he went away from Gondor" [154] and speculates that it must be a fell weapon devised by Sauron. He describes Boromir as "proud and fearless, often rash, ever anxious for the victory of Minas Tirith (and his own glory therein)" and that "he (Boromir) might desire such a thing and be allured by it." [155] Then he makes a comment for himself,

    "I would not take this thing, if it lay by the highway. Not were Minas Tirith falling in ruin and I alone could save her, so, using the weapon of the Dark Lord for her good and my glory." [156]

Faramir is given the test when Sam lets it slip that Boromir desired the Enemy's Ring. Prompted by Sam to show his quality and with some bitterness he makes the comment, no doubt aware of the remarks that he had made earlier about his brother's weakness,

    "The One Ring that was thought to have perished from the world. And Boromir tried to take it by force? And you escaped? And ran all the way - to me? And here in the wild I have you: two halflings, and a host of men at my call, and the Ring of Rings. A pretty stroke of fortune! A chance for Faramir, Captain of Gondor, to show his quality! Ha!" [157]

In this first passage Faramir identifies the temptation and the choice, and then he goes on to exercise the choice,

    " How you have increased my sorrow, you two strange wanderers from a far country, bearing the peril of Men! But you are less judges of Men than I of Halflings. We are truth-speakers, we men of Gondor. We boast seldom, and then perform, or die in the attempt. Not if I found it on the highway would I take it I said. Even if I were such a man as to desire this thing, and even though I knew not clearly what this thing was when I spoke, still I should take those words as a vow and be held by them." [158]

Faramir resists temptation and shows himself to be of the highest quality. Sam observes that Faramir has an air, a spirit of nobility and quality that reminds him of wizards and Gandalf. Faramir's comment is that maybe Sam discerns from far away the air of Numenor, and it is clear that Faramir is one of the High Men of the West in attitude certainly, one of the Faithful, with sufficient strength of will and moral purpose to refuse temptation when it is presented [159].

4.4.6. On Sam

Throughout the tale, Sam is never tempted to take the Ring although he has many opportunities to do so. For him the question never arises. To even contemplate such an act would be supreme disloyalty primarily to his Master, but secondly to the quest. Sam is totally devoted to Frodo's interests, and represents an aspect of hobbitish toughness that does not allow the Ring to become an issue for him. Sam epitomises the archetype of the ideal English yeoman possessed of extraordinary strength of will, an aggressive sense of rightness and wrongness [160] and a strong sense of duty. The very title of the chapter [161] where he is put to a number of tests sums up the fact that for everyone life is full of choices that fall thick and fast, and sometimes the choices that are made are incorrect, apparently wrong, often impulsive, but all through the exercise of free will.

Sam is confronted with the horrifying fact that in his desire to destroy Gollum, he had deserted Frodo at need, and he despairs. His love for his Master and his devotion as a servant becomes overtaken by his duty to the Quest;

    "I have something to do before the end. I must see it through, sir, if you understand" [162]

Sam debates with himself whether or not he should take the Ring. He weighs up the options and takes the Ring to continue the Quest. Sam's acquisition of the Ring is accompanied by a noble motive, and not for power or self-aggrandisement. When he uses the Ring, it is to escape from the approaching Orcs. For Sam, the Ring is a burden and a great weight. He can understand the harsh language of the Orcs, and his hearing is enhanced. His sight is dimmed, and he feels horribly vulnerable, and he can feel the Eye searching for him.

It is before the Tower of Cirith Ungol that Sam is truly tempted.

    "His thought turned to the Ring, but there was no comfort there, only dread and danger. No sooner had he come in sight of Mount Doom, burning far away, than he was aware of a change in his burden. As it drew near the great furnaces where, in the deeps of time, it had been shaped and forged, the Ring's power grew, and it became more fell, untameable except by some mighty will. As Sam stood there, even though the Ring was not on him but hanging by its chain about his neck, he felt himself enlarged, as if he were robed in a huge distorted shadow of himself, a vast and ominous threat halted upon the walls of Mordor. He felt that he had from now on only two choices: to forbear the Ring, though it would torment him; or to claim it, and challenge the Power that sat in its dark hold beyond the valley of shadows. Already the Ring tempted him, gnawing at his will and reason. Wild fantasies arose in his mind; and he saw Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age, striding with a flaming sword across the darkened land, and armies flocking to his call as he marched to the overthrow of Barad-dur. And then all the clouds rolled away, and the white sun shone, and at his command the vale of Gorgoroth became a garden of flowers and trees and brought forth fruit. He had only to put on the Ring and claim it for his own, and all this could be.
    In that hour of trial it was his love of his master that helped most to hold him firm; but also deep down in him lived still unconquered his plain hobbit-sense: he knew in the core of his heart that he was not large enough to bear such a burden, even if such visions were not a mere cheat to betray him. The one small garden of a free gardener was all his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm; his own hands to use, not the hands of others to command.
    'And anyway all these notions are only a trick, he said to himself." [163]

The Ring tries to work upon Sam's own particular interests, but the common sense of the common man prevails, and Sam's self-realisation triumphs over temptation.

Continue to next section-->

The Tolkien Encyclopedia
The Art of Tolkien
One Ring to Rule Them All by David Harvey

Hypertextual System by FMI Publishing, 1995