The Lord of the Rings is full of Christian symbolism, ranging from the Threefold Office of priest, prophet, and king represented by Frodo, Gandalf, and Aragorn (respectively) as covered in Part I to the slew of “good guys” representing various Christian aspects and relationships as covered in Part II of this series. This Part III covers the darker aspects of Middle Earth and their connections to Christian concepts of evil.
Missed Part II? See it here: Part II: The Good in Middle Earth
1. The Ring
The Ring is well-known as a symbol of power. It is, after all, called explicitly the “Ring of Power”. The Ring gave Sauron nearly unstoppable strength in battle and control over those bound by his lesser rings of power. Boromir understood the Ring to be a powerful tool, and wished to wield this power for the good of Gondor against Mordor. Galadriel recognized that, if she were to take the Ring as offered by Frodo, she would have unlimited power with which to rule Middle Earth. The case for the Ring as an object of power is well established.
However, I believe Tolkien saw the Ring as much more than simply a powerful trinket and an explicit symbol of power over the world. The Ring represents sin in many regards. The Ring has a draw to it – an allure – that is characterized as unescapable by Tolkien. Neither hobbit, nor elf, nor especially man can resist the Ring’s spellbinding nature. The creation of Sauron calls to everyone that lays eyes upon it: it tempts them. Likewise, sin is tempting and veils its hideousness behind false beauty or innocence. Hence, the characterization of the Fall of Man in Genesis is in the eating of an apple, an innocuous thing in itself.
As further evidence, Tolkien described one ill effect of bearing the Ring or its subordinate rings of power (such as those gifted to the nine kings of men) as a sapping of vitality, something that is a result of sin, but not of simply wielding power. For example, I wouldn’t describe Alexander the Great, the most powerful ruler of his time, as lacking vitality. On the contrary, his vitality likely only aided his power and abilities.
The nine ring wraiths began as mortal men, but because they had traded their loyalties for the nine rings of power given to them by Sauron in deceit, they succumbed to his power and waned into the ethereal figures witnessed in The Lord of the Rings. Likewise, Gollum lived long through his possession of the Ring but only thinly. In fact, through Smeagol’s transformation into Gollum, he developed many traits symbolic of emptying out the good in him, such as his aversion to the sunlight and the creations of elves (e.g. the elven rope that burned him). He even developed an alter ego reminiscent of the “evil angel on the shoulder” trope, that engages in psychological battle with the “good” Smeagol. Bilbo is a witness to the sapping effects of bearing the Ring, well-describing the effects on us when we bear our sins without reconciliation:
“I’m old, Gandalf. I know I don’t look it, but I’m beginning to feel it in my heart. I feel… thin. Sort of stretched, like… butter scraped over too much bread.”Bilbo Baggins to Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Frodo also is witness to the binding power of the Ring (sin) to its creator (Satan):
“I am naked in the dark, Sam, and there is no veil between me and the wheel of fire.”Frodo to Sam in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
There is no shortage of such quotes from Bilbo, Frodo, Gandalf, and others to further illustrate the Ring as a representation of sin. Even Sam Gamgee, when bearing the Ring for a short time, felt the Ring begin to corrupt his 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… Already the Ring tempted him, gnawing at his will and reason.”The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
This demonstrates well the corrupting power of the Ring and of sin. Sin pretends to enlarge us, to make us greater, freer, more powerful than we are without it. Was not the first sin this very desire, to be like God?
Finally, the Ring is not destroyed by brute force. The destruction of the Ring– of sin – was not done by war, but rather by the impossible sacrifice made by Frodo and Sam, just as sin was defeated by the sacrifice of Christ.
Gollum is one of the few individuals most, including Frodo, hope to see revived from his darkness. Gollum is a creature twisted by the power of the Ring (sin). He has replaced nearly all the good and beautiful things in his life with things of darkness owing to his addiction to the “precious”. However, throughout The Lord of the Rings books but most acutely in the movies, there still persists some hope for Gollum to turn away from his evil ways.
“Even Gollum was not wholly ruined…There was a little corner of his mind that was still his own, and light came through it, as through a chink in the dark: light out of the past…But that, of course, would only make the evil part of him angrier in the end – unless it could be conquered. Unless it could be cured….Alas! there is little hope of that for him. Yet not no hope.”Gandalf speaking to Frodo in The Shadow of the Past in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
In many regards, we become Gollum when we put ourselves and desires before others. Life becomes about what we want, what we think of as our “precious” rather than what is objectively good (e.g. the destruction of the Ring). Some sins are so evil and long practiced that they change a person. One does not murder indiscriminately without one’s mind being twisted, as Gollum’s mind was reshaped by his obsession for the Ring long ago.
Sin is the downfall of man. In Genesis, it is the first sin that destines man to die until the sacrifice of Christ offered a way out. Likewise, Gollum’s undoing was his refusal to walk away from the Ring, choosing instead to jump headlong after the Ring into the very fires of Mount Doom.
Sauron is the obvious villain of The Lord of the Rings, though in Tolkien’s The Silmarillion he is revealed as only a lieutenant of the supreme evil, Melkor. Nonetheless, Sauron may be taken in his own right as a representation of Satan. As creator of the Ring, Sauron tied his vitality with the fate of the Ring, just as Satan’s fate is tied to the fate of sin. Where sin is, there is Satan; and where there is no sin, there is no Satan.
According to Christianity, all creation was good, and evil is understood as a lack of the good. Hence, the most evil characters in The Lord of the Rings tend also to be the most ethereal, lacking substance. Sauron is a supreme example of this, consisting of merely an all-seeing “Eye of Sauron”. The immateriality of evil also has other implications: evil cannot create, only corrupt and pervert. Hence, orcs are not a unique creation of Sauron, but rather a twisting of ancient elves. In The Return of the King, Frodo responds to Sam’s questioning of the mortality of orcs in the following way:
“The Shadow that bred them can only mock, it cannot make: not real new things of its own. I don’t think it gave life to the orcs, it only ruined them and twisted them; and if they are to live at all, they have to live like other living creatures.“Frodo speaking to Sam in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Tolkien’s The Silmarillion makes this point more generally, that evil (embodied by evil’s chief architect, Melkor) cannot create anything living specifically:
“For the Orcs had life and multiplied after the manner of the Children of Ilúvatar; and naught that had life of its own, nor the semblance of life, could ever Melkor make since his rebellion in the Ainulindalë before the Beginning: so say the wise.“The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien
Hence, Tolkien’s characterization of Sauron is of one consumed by evil from his self-inflicted enslavement to the Ring (sin), draining him of the life initially gifted him. Sauron endeavored to make himself greater, but instead affected his own downfall.
Saruman’s story arc is somewhat similar to that of Gollum’s, as both begin as generally good characters only to become corrupted. Saruman was for a long time the leader of the Council that guided Gandalf and other powerful figures. However, Saruman’s insatiable desire for greatness, even to usurp the power of Mordor, became his downfall. Though ignored by the movies due to some significant plot simplification, Saruman was given a chance at reconciliation with the forces of good after the destruction of the Ring. While Gandalf and the hobbits were returning northward toward the Shire, they came upon Saruman and his servant Wormtongue along the road. Gandalf informs Saruman of the mercy that would’ve been shown him, if he had not fled from his tower:
“‘You know the answers,’ said Gandalf: ‘no and no. But in any case the time of my labors now draws to an end. The King has taken on the burden. If you had waited at Orthanc, you would have seen him, and he would have shown you wisdom and mercy.'”Gandalf to Saruman in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Saruman responds with repugnance that he desires not the king nor to be in his kingdom any longer. Galadriel then offers the final olive branch to the wretched wizard, to which he answers:
“‘If it be truly the last [chance], I am glad,’ said Saruman; ‘for I shall be spared the trouble of refusing it again. All my hopes are ruined, but I would not share yours.'”Saruman responding to Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
The Christian concept of evil is not a positive idea, meaning evil is not a thing in and of itself, but rather a lack of good. Therefore it is believed that Satan never creates anything, but rather twists existing things to his purposes. In The Lord of the Rings both the powers in Mordor and Isengard only pervert what already exists. This lack of creativity is what forces Saruman to find battlefield strength in technology, such as in large machines of war and explosives. Tolkien was predisposed to portray this evil bent to technology from his skepticism over the rapid mechanization of Britain.
Saruman’s end was at last a result of his own evil mistreatment of Wormtongue, as the latter, harboring a hatred for his master from long abuse, stabbed and killed the once noble wizard.
Evil in The Lord of the Rings takes on a particularly Christian flavor, mimicking several Christian concepts, including sin, Satan, unrepentance leading to self-destruction, and the idea of evil as a lack of the good. As in Middle Earth, evil in the real world feels pervasive and unescapable. One’s views on the concept of evil is often an indicator of his or her views on Christianity. In one case, the very existence of evil evidences a lack of a god. In the second case, evil is the most real evidence of a moral structure ordered by God. However, the first question to ask should be what is evil? Tolkien and Christianity alike answer: a void of the good, and this thread runs through The Lord of the Rings and serves as the mold for all evil in Middle Earth.
Books to Read
2 thoughts on “Christianity in The Lord of the Rings: (Part III) Evil in Middle Earth”