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A Tolkien Scholar Examines the Nature of Evil in the One Ring

Is evil an external or internal force in Tolkien's beloved fantasy series?


British scholar Tom Shippey is so familiar with the Lord of the Rings series, he may as well have co-written it. Considered one of the leading experts on all things Tolkien, Shippey's love affair with Middle-earth began as a teenager, when he received a loaned copy of The Hobbit. He has since spent most of his academic life analyzing the author's works—even meeting with the man himself, and teaching his Old and Middle English syllabi in his own classes.

Shippey has published books and essays on his studies, including J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, in which he takes a deep dive into the Tolkien canon. From the posthumous collection The Silmarillion to, of course, the legendary fantasy series, Shippey reveals new insight into Tolkien's influences, commonly used themes, and style—and how, all together, these things made him not just a popular author, but the author of the 20th century.

In the excerpt below, Shippey examines the ambiguous, often dual nature of the evil present in the One Ring. At times, Shippey explains, its force seems to be external—an entity all its own. At other times, the evil seems to be internal, tapping into the inherent darkness within its wearer. It's a fascinating look at the Lord of the Rings series and Tolkien's own notions of good and evil, which are colored by his religious beliefs and personal experiences.

Read on for an excerpt of J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, by Tom Shippey.

Tolkien was a more orthodox Christian than Lewis, and less tolerant of anything like heresy. Nevertheless, his education, his faith, and the circumstances of his time, all set up what seemed to be a deep-seated contradiction between Boethian and Manichaean opinions, between authority and experience, between evil as an absence (‘the Shadow’) and evil as a force (‘the Dark Power’). In The Lord of the Rings this contradiction drives much of the plot. It is expressed not only through the paradoxes of wraiths and shadows, but also through the Ring.

Evil and the Ring

The Ring’s ambiguity is present almost the first time we see it, in ‘The Shadow of the Past’, when Gandalf tells Frodo, ‘Give me the ring for a moment.’ Frodo unfastens it from its chain and, ‘handed it slowly to the wizard. It felt suddenly very heavy, as if either it or Frodo himself was in some way reluctant for Gandalf to touch it.’

Either it or Frodo. It may not seem very important to know which of these alternative explanations is true, but the difference is the difference between the world-views I have labelled above as ‘Boethian’ and ‘Manichaean’. If Boethius is right, then evil is internal, caused by human sin and weakness and alienation from God; in this case the Ring feels heavy because Frodo (already in the very first stages of addiction, we may say) is unconsciously reluctant to part with it. If there is some truth in the Manichaean view, though, then evil is a force from outside which has in some way been able to make the non-sentient Ring itself evil; so it is indeed the Ring, obeying the will of its master, which does not want to be identified. Both views are furthermore perfectly convincing. In the earlier scene of Bilbo’s inability to part with the Ring – not realizing it’s in his pocket, getting angry when pressed, unable to make up his mind, dropping the envelope with the Ring on the floor – all readers realize that these are not accidents, but manifestations of Bilbo’s own unconscious wishes: Freudianism has taught us all at least that much. However the whole plot of The Lord of the Rings is permeated with the idea of the will of Sauron operating at a distance, stirring up evil forces, literally animating the Ringwraiths and even the orcs; Gandalf talks repeatedly of the Ring as animate, betraying Isildur, abandoning Gollum, and says in explanation that according to Bilbo the Ring ‘needed looking after…it shrank or expanded in an odd way, and might suddenly slip off a finger where it had been tight’. The ideas that on the one hand the Ring is a sort of psychic amplifier, magnifying the unconscious fears or selfishnesses of its owners, and on the other that it is a sentient creature with urges and powers of its own, are both present from the beginning, and correspond to the internal/Boethian and external/ Manichaean theories of evil.

The ambiguity is more prominent and more important in later scenes. Frodo puts on the Ring six times in The Lord of the Rings. The first time is in the house of Tom Bombadil. This does not seem to count, for Tom, characteristically, is quite unaffected: he neither becomes invisible himself when he puts it on nor fails to see Frodo when he puts it on. The next time is in the Prancing Pony, when Frodo feels a ‘desire…to slip it on and vanish out of the whole silly situation’. This, of course, could be entirely his own doing; but ‘It seemed to him, somehow, as if the suggestion came to him from outside’. In any case ‘He resisted the temptation firmly’. He makes a speech, sings a song, and then, falling off the table on which he has been capering, finds he has put on the Ring. By accident? Frodo at least works out an explanation of how this could have happened. But at the same time ‘he wondered if the Ring itself had not played him a trick; perhaps it had tried to reveal itself in response to some wish or command that was felt in the room’. We never learn the truth about this, and the second explanation does not seem especially plausible. Who in the room could have given such a command? The likes of Bill Ferny seem too low-rank and too ignorant to be capable of projecting such orders. But this is not the case on Weathertop, when the Ring-wraiths attack.

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  • Still from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

    Photo Credit: New Line Cinema

Here the Manichaean view is much more evident. Frodo remembers all his warnings, but ‘something seemed to be compelling him’ to disregard them. The situation is different, again, from the moment in the Barrow-wight’s mound, when Frodo thought for a moment of using the Ring to escape, but put the thought aside without difficulty. On Weathertop he has ‘no hope of escape…he simply felt that he must take the Ring and put it on his finger’. He struggles against the urge for a while, but in the end ‘resistance became unbearable’. The feeling here is that Frodo’s will has just been overpowered by superior force, no doubt that of the wraiths, using some mental power of the sort Gandalf hinted at. And yet, and on the other hand, the word used at the start of the attack (just as in the Prancing Pony) is ‘temptation’: Frodo is tempted. Furthermore, we are told that it would have made a difference if he had yielded to the temptation. Gandalf says later on that his heart was not pierced by the Morgul-knife ‘because you resisted to the last’. He might mean just that Frodo dodged, shouted, struck out, in an entirely physical sense putting the Ringwraith off his aim. But more likely there is a psychological sense. The knife works by subduing the will, and if the will does not co-operate it works less well – though it does not lose its power entirely and altogether, as it would if evil were entirely a matter of inner temptations. Gandalf keeps up the ambiguity of the scene by remarking that ‘fortune or fate have helped you…not to mention courage’. But here he clearly means not either/or but both, fate and courage: the same may be true of the nature of the Ring.

Frodo uses the Ring twice on Amon Hen (II/10), and both times he has to, first to escape Boromir, then to get away from the Fellowship without being noticed. On the first occasion, though, he sees the Eye of Sauron, and becomes aware that it is looking for him. And as he does so:

‘He heard himself crying out Never, never! Or was it: Verily, I come, I come to you? He could not tell. Then as a flash from some other point of power there came to his mind another thought: Take it off! Take it off! Fool, take it off! Take off the Ring.'

Related: J.R.R. Tolkien: 15 Interesting Facts About the Man Behind Middle-earth 

The two powers strove in him. For a moment, perfectly balanced between their piercing points, he writhed, tormented. Suddenly he was aware of himself again. Frodo, neither the Voice nor the Eye: free to choose and with one remaining instant in which to do so. He took the Ring off his finger.’

This is an especially mysterious scene on first reading, though it is cleared up slightly when we learn (as has been said above) that the third voice is Gandalf’s, in a ‘high place’ somewhere striving against the mental force of the ‘the Dark Power’. But whose are the other two voices? The first one seems to be ‘himself, i.e. Frodo. The second one could be, perhaps, the voice of the Ring: the sentient creature obeying the call of its maker, Sauron, as it has been all along. Or could it be, so to speak, Frodo’s subconscious, obeying a kind of death-wish, entirely internal but psychically amplified by the Ring? For that, after all, is how we are told the Ring works. It gets a hold on people through their own impulses, towards pity or justice or knowledge or saving Gondor, and gives them the absolute power that corrupts absolutely. There has to be something there for it to work on; but, like the worms in Bilbo’s father’s proverb, everyone has some weak spot. They may ‘writhe’ between the external and internal powers, but that is surely how one gets to be a ‘wraith’.

The Manichaean images of the Ring become stronger as it moves closer to Mordor. Sam’s uses of it – he puts it on twice – are conditioned by immediate necessity, like Frodo’s on Amon Hen, but he too feels it both as an external power, ‘untameable save by some mighty will’, and as an inner temptation. Here, though, it seems obvious that the temptation to become ‘Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age’ is mostly the Ring’s, amplifying whatever petty selfish urge it can find. Sam hardly feels the temptation, and puts it aside as a ‘shadow’, mere ‘phantoms’. In a similar way, on the Stairs of Cirith Ungol, Frodo hides from the Lord of the Nazgûl, but is sensed by him. Frodo feels ‘the beating upon him of a great power from outside’, which takes his hand and moves it ‘inch by inch towards the chain upon his neck’. But this time ‘There was no longer any answer to that command in his own will’, so that he can force his hand back, to the phial of Galadriel. ‘No longer’ of course implies that there had been such an answer previously, on Amon Hen, on Weathertop, or in the Prancing Pony. But this time there is no doubt that the ‘power’ is from ‘outside’.

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The last and critical scene, however, is the one on Mount Doom, in the chambers of the Sammath Naur. In the approach to this the sense of an outside power has grown stronger and stronger. Sam sees Frodo’s hand creep again and again towards the Ring, only to be withdrawn ‘as the will recovered mastery’. It is a surprise, then, that when Frodo at last glimpses the Eye, reaches for the chain and the Ring, and whispers to Sam, ‘Hold my hand! I can’t stop it’, Sam can take his hand away and hold it without effort, indeed ‘gently’. The force that is operating on Frodo is not a physical one, like magnetism, which would be unaffected by personality; what is unstoppable to Frodo is imperceptible to Sam. In the same way, the Ring is a crushing burden to Frodo, but when Sam picks him up, expecting to feel the same ‘dreadful dragging weight of the accursed Ring’, it is no weight at all. Meanwhile the outside power is having an effect on Sam, but it operates once again (as in the scene on Amon Hen) by creating a kind of dialogue. Sam finds himself holding ‘a debate with himself. One voice is optimistic, determined, set on destroying the Ring. The other voice – it is ‘his own voice’, but it twice calls him ‘Sam Gamgee’, as if it was someone else – says he can’t go on, doesn’t know what to do, and ‘might just as well lie down now and give it up’. Whose voice is this? It could, of course, just be Sam’s own feelings of downheartedness: most people talk to themselves mentally at some point. On the other hand, it could be the Ring, once more amplifying inner feelings and this time giving them a voice. When Sam finally rejects the second voice, whoever’s it is, the ground shakes and rumbles, as if some outside power had recognized and resented his decision. All this builds up to the question of what makes Frodo fail at the last hurdle. He reaches the Sammath Naur, leaving Sam behind to deal with Gollum, and when Sam follows him in, he finds that even the phial of Galadriel is no longer any use to him. In this place, ‘the heart of the realm of Sauron…all other powers were here subdued’. At that moment, standing on the very edge of the Crack of Doom, Frodo gives up. His words are:

‘I have come…But I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine.’

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  • Author and Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey in 2015.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

With that he puts it on for the sixth and final time. It is a vital question to know whether Frodo does this because he has been made to, or whether he has succumbed to inner temptation. What he says suggests the latter, for he appears to be claiming responsibility very firmly: ‘I will not…the Ring is mine.’ Against that, there has been the increasing sense of reaching a centre of power, where all other powers are ‘subdued’. If that is the case, Frodo could no more help himself than if he had been swept away by a river, or buried in a landslide. It is also interesting that Frodo does not say, ‘I choose not to do’, but ‘I do not choose to do’. Maybe (and Tolkien was a professor of language) the choice of words is absolutely accurate. Frodo does not choose; the choice is made for him.

The question becomes an academic one, of course, in that the result is achieved by Gollum, fulfilling Frodo’s own words a few moments before, ‘If you touch me ever again, you shall be cast yourself into the Fire of Doom’. But Tolkien was an academic, and academics often see importance in academic issues where others do not. Is Frodo guilty? Has he given in to temptation? Or just been overpowered by evil? If one puts the questions like that, there is a surprising and ominous echo to them, which suggests that this whole debate between ‘Boethian’ and ‘Manichaean’ views, far from being one between orthodoxy and heresy, is at the absolute heart of the Christian religion itself. The Lord’s Prayer, which in Tolkien’s day everyone knew, and which most English-speakers know even yet, contains seven clauses or requests, and of these the sixth and seventh are:

‘Lead us not into temptation,

But deliver us from evil.’

Are these variants of each other, saying the same thing? Or (much more likely) do they have different but complementary intentions, the first asking God to keep us safe from ourselves (the Boethian source of sin), the second asking for protection from outside (the source of evil in a Manichaean universe)? If the latter is the case, then Tolkien’s double or ambiguous view of evil is not a flirtation with heresy after all, but expresses a truth about the nature of the universe denied to the philosopher Boethius, and possibly even to the rationalist Lewis.

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  • Sammath Naur at Mount Doom, where the Ring was finally destroyed, in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

    Photo Credit: New Line Cinema

There is no doubt that the Lord’s Prayer was in Tolkien’s mind as he wrote the Sammath Naur scene, for he said as much in a private letter to David Masson, with whom he had been discussing the criticisms made of him, as mentioned above. In this letter (kindly shown to me by Mr Masson, of the Brotherton Library in Leeds), Tolkien quoted the last three clauses of the Lord’s Prayer, including ‘Forgive us our trespasses’, and commented that these were words which occurred to him, and that the scene in the Sammath Naur was meant to be a ‘ “fairy-story” exemplum’ of them. Tolkien did not comment on the Prayer’s apparent tautology, nor on the ambiguity of his own presentation of evil throughout, but they are of a piece. One can never tell for sure, in The Lord of the Rings, whether the danger of the Ring comes from inside, and is sinful, or from outside, and is merely hostile. And one has to say that this is one of the work’s great strengths. We all recognize, in our better moments at least, that much harm comes from our own imperfections, sometimes terribly magnified, like traffic deaths from haste and aggression and reluctance to leave the party too soon: those are temptations. At the same time there are other disasters for which one feels no responsibility at all, like (as Tolkien was writing) bombs and gas-chambers. They may in fact all be connected, as Boethius insisted: no human being can ever see enough to tell. But our experience does not feel like that. It is a mistake just to blame everything on evil forces ‘out there’, the habit of xenophobes and popular journalists; just as much a mistake to luxuriate in self-analysis, the great skill of Tolkien’s contemporaries, the cosseted upper-class writers of the ‘modernist’ movement.

And, of course, things would be much easier for the characters in The Lord of the Rings if this uncertainty over the nature of evil were to be withdrawn. If evil was just the absence of good, then the Ring could never be more than a psychic amplifier, and all the characters would need to do would be to put it aside, perhaps give it to Tom Bombadil: in Middle-earth we are assured that would be fatal. Conversely, if evil were only an external force without echo in the hearts of the good, then someone might have to take it to Orodruin, but it would not need to be Frodo: Gandalf could take it, or Galadriel, and whoever did so would have to fight only their enemies, not their friends or themselves. But if that were the case (and most fantasies are far more like that than The Lord of the Rings), then the work would be a lesser one, just a complex war-game of ‘Dungeons and Dragons’; as it would be a lesser one if it veered instead in the direction of philosophical treatise or confessional novel, without relevance to the real world of war and politics from which Tolkien’s experience of evil so clearly originated.

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Featured still from "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" (2001), via New Line Cinema