Sin in The Lord of the Rings (Book 1)

As genres, science fiction and fantasy have often gained the reputation of being a bit morally black and white. In short, fantasy would offer us the choice between the realm of good and the realm of evil. Like oil and water, never the twain shall meet. In perhaps the most famous example of science fiction, George Lucas’s Star Wars, the starkness of this divide is rendered in visually unmistakeable terms—on the side of evil, Sith menacingly wield their red lightsabres, and on the good, Jedis heroically bear bright swords radiating the more positive hues of green and blue.  

Recent fantasy has sought to blur the ethical lines and render stories that are more morally complex. In his immensely popular epic, Game of Thrones (or Tales of Ice, Wind and Fire), George R. R. Martin famously kills of good and noble protagonists while allowing evil tyrants to live on. Martin is somehow able to make the most hideous protagonists worthy of our sympathy. 

Martin was not the first to try his hand at building a more sophisticated moral universe. If we look a bit further back, we can locate an even more realistic, and even more hopeful, depiction of good and evil. It is in the trilogy that effectively gave birth to modern fantasy, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, that the power of evil and the human capacity for wrong—what the Christian tradition calls sin—arguably finds its most convincing depiction within the genre. 

In fact, it is precisely its heavy reliance on the Christian tradition that gives the Lord of the Rings its rich moral hue. What I hope to provide here are some reflections, as a newcomer to Middle Earth, on this rich and complex moral world. In this post, I will offer a few observations on the human plight according to Tolkien before, in a future blog, offering reflections on the books’ more positive vision of the solution to evil. I have only finished Book 1, The Fellowship of the Ring and so my points below pertain to the first book in the Trilogy. 

There are at least three major characteristics of sin which clearly emerge in the first book: first, its ability to seduce by powerfully suggesting noble aims while ignoring the ignoble means; second its addictive quality by which it promises more and more and weakens the will of the ring-wielder as those who encounter the Ring give their will over to it; and third, its corrosive nature, by which it destroys the human person. 

The Seductive Power of Sin 

What is the chief sin in Lord of the Rings? Sloth? Greed? Gluttony? Anger? While each of these feature in the narrative, the main sin in the story would seem to be lust, and specifically, lust for power. It is power that motivates Saruman to betray the Council and strength that causes Boromir to abandon the journey to Mordor in favour of a war in Minis Tirith. All of this makes perfect sense when we consider what the Ring symbolises. “One Ring to rule them all”. The One Ring is none other than the Ring of Power.

And its promise of power is seductive. More specifically, the Ring seductively appeals to the noble aims of those who come across it. It subtly encourages the supposedly grand goals of the one who wields the ring, all the while twisting and perverting those very same goals, and the means by which those ends are achieved.

Saruman, Galadriel and Boromir would all seek to use the Ring to overthrow the Dark Lord (Gandalf admits to being tempted when Frodo innocently asks him why he, Gandalf the Wise should not take the ring). Innocent and even noble ends mask terrible means by which those ends are achieved. A Russian friend tells me that there is a piece of fan fiction in which Galadriel’s vision at the Mirror is carried out in reality, only that in the end, she rises to become the next Dark Lord.

There is a strong message that comes through here about means and ends. In his debate with Gandalf, Saruman seeks to persuade the Grey Wizard to find the ring and together rule as the Wise. “There need not be, there would not be, any real change in our designs, only in our means”. Or, as Boromir puts it near the end of Part One, “we desire…only strength to defend ourselves, strength in a just cause”. The seductive possibility of having our ends met, however noble and good those ends are, quickly comes to serve as the justification for all sorts of terrible evils along the way. 

The Addictive Power of Sin

In addition to its seductive power, sin also has a compulsive, addictive element to it in Tolkien’s world.

Bilbo and Frodo are unable to put the ring away, resist the urge to wear it and, when asked, are incapable of handing it over to the trusted Gandalf. The departing Bilbo’s struggle to pass the ring on to Frodo powerfully demonstrates the hold the Ring has on him. The passage is lengthy but worth quoting in full.

‘He [Frodo] would come with me, of course, if I asked him. I am leaving everything to him, of course, except a few oddments. I hope he will be happy; when he gets used to being on his own. It’s time he was his own master now’.

‘Everything?’ said Gandalf. ‘The ring as well? You agreed to that, you remember?’

‘Well, er, yes, I suppose so’, stammered Bilbo.

‘Where is it?’

‘In an envelope, if you must know’, said Bilbo impatiently. ‘There on the mantelpiece. Well, no! Here it is in my pocket!’ He hesitated. ‘Isn’t that odd now?’ he said softly to himself. ‘Yet after all, why not? Why shouldn’t it stay there?’

Gandalf looked again very hard at Bilbo and there was a gleam in his eyes. ‘I think Bilbo’, he said quietly, ‘that I should leave it behind. Don’t you want to?’

‘Well yes – and no. Now it comes to it, I don’t like parting with it at all, I may say…It is mine, I tell you. My own. My Precious. Yes, my Precious’.

The wizard’s face remained grace and attentive….’It has been called that before’, he said, ‘but not by you’…

‘I am sorry’, he [Bilbo] said. ‘But I felt so queer. And yet it would be a relief in a way not to be bothered with it any more. It has been 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 tried 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’.

‘Then trust mine’, said Gandalf. ‘It is quite made up. Go away and leave it behind. Stop possessing it. Give it to Frodo, and I will look after him’.

Bilbo stood for a moment tense and undecided. Presently he signed. ‘All right’, he said with an effort. ‘I will’. Then he shrugged his shoulders, and smiled rather ruefully. ‘After al that’s what this business was all about, really…’

‘Indeed, it would take away the only point I ever saw in the affair’, said Gandalf.

‘Very well’, said Bilbo, ‘it goes to Frodo with all the rest.’ He drew a deep breath. ‘And now I must really be starting, or somebody else will catch me. I have said good-bye, and I couldn’t bear to do it all over again’. He picked up his bag and moved to the door.

‘You still have the ring in your pocket’, said the Wizard.

‘Well so I have!’, cried Bilbo.

After Bilbo eventually departs and leaves the ring with Frodo, Gandalf asks Frodo to try and throw the Ring into the fire.

Frodo drew the Ring out of his pocket….When he took it out he had intended to fling it from him into the very hottest part of the fire. But he found now that he could not do so, not without a great struggle. He weighed the Ring in his hand, hesitating, and forcing himself to remember all that Gandalf had told him; and then with an effort of will he made a movement, as if to cast it away – but he found that he put it back in his pocket.

Gandalf laughed grimly. ‘You see? Already you too, Frodo, cannot easily let it go, nor will to damage it’.

In both episodes, the power of the ring has a weakening effect on the will such that the one who bears it is not able to act as they would want. Bilbo wants to hand over the ring but, when it comes down to it, the ring stays with him. “I tried locking it up, but I found I couldn’t rest without it in my pocket“. Similarly, Frodo hesitates with the ring in his hand and, though he wants to cast it into the fire, he finds that he has kept it on his person.

Bilbo is initially unable to admit his powerlessness, and holds on to the ring as his Precious, despite a prior commitment to hand over the ring to Frodo. A great part of the solution to Frodo and Bilbo’s compulsive behaviour lies in community. As Gandalf tells Frodo, defeating the power of the Ring (and the power the Ring has over him) means forming a fellowship and journeying side-by-side to victory (a victory which takes the form of acknowledging powerlessness over the lust for power and the absolute necessity of destroying the Ring). Gandalf’s relationship with Frodo and Bilbo shows that it is fellowship itself, and the gift of honest community, that holds the key to defeating the lust for power.

The Corrosive Power of Sin

If the seductive and addictive power of sin have to do with its powerful effects, then the ring’s corrosive quality pertains to sin’s ultimate penalty and end. In Tolkien’s account, the lust for power corrodes human nature, leading to dehumanised subjects whose very humanity degrades and disappears.

To be sure, the Ring gives Bilbo vitality. The Hobbits of the Shire frequently comment on Bilbo’s mysteriously youthful energy. Yet it is also apparent to his neighbours that his youthfulness is unnatural, with rumours that Bilbo achieved his seeming agelessness through making some deal or acquiring some piece of magic during his adventures as a younger Hobbit.

In addition to giving unnatural powers of youth, the Ring also dehumanises those who wear it. Jealous and Cain-like Sméagol kills his friend Déagol for the Ring. Tormented by his family, and, in turn, tormenting them by using the Ring’s invisible qualities to steal food, Sméagol earns the name Gollum for his guttural, inhuman speech. He then proceeds to live out his life in caves away from mankind, existing in dark isolation and eating raw fish. It is not only Gollum that is degraded by the Ring, though he surely is the epitome of such degradation since he gives himself over most fully to the Ring’s power. Tolkien also comments that other character’s feel the effects of the Ring’s power, often through a changed facial expression. Bilbo’s “kindly face grew hard” as Gandalf asks him to hand over the ring. Gandalf’s eyes flash when Frodo asks him to take the Ring. Later, when reunited with Bilbo at Rivendell, Frodo reluctantly shows the ring to his uncle, only to find “himself eyeing a little wrinkled creature with a hungry face and bony groping hands”. An unnatural hush and shadow darken the room that was before filled with joyful elven song. Galadriel soars to a towering height before Sam and Frodo, in a vision of sheer power at the Mirror in Lorien. And finally, Boromir’s anger, and his desire to usurp Frodo’s position and gain the ring, give his face an unnatural gleam for just a moment, as he rages with inner torment at the prospect of losing the power the Ring could bring to his cause.

Then, there is the business of disappearing. At one level, the ring’s magic ability to make its wearer disappear is just that. But at a deeper level, the one who wields the ring also begins to disappear and fade from this world while simultaneously sinking under the control of the Dark Lord, Sauron. On Weathertop, and surrounded by the Black Riders, Frodo is unable to resist the urge to put on the Ring. “Immediately, though everything else remained as it was before, dim and dark, the shapes became terribly clear. He was able to see beneath their black wrappings.” Later, at the gates of Rivendell, Frodo more clearly sees the Riders who had before remained cloaked and hidden from sight. When safely within Rivendell’s walls, Frodo comments how “it all seemed so dim”. Gandalf informs him that the wound he had acquired from one of the Riders was slowly turning him to the ends of the Dark Lord. “You were beginning to fade. The wound was overcoming you at last”. Not only does one literally disappear from view with the ring; one’s essence and very self is eroded by its constant use. 

Tolkien taps into a common stream of thinking in the Christian tradition which sees evil as the privation of good. Sin and evil do not exist in themselves, but are, like darkness, the very absence of light, the absence of good. To be under the power of sin, then, is to cease to exist in some sense. It is to disappear or fade, like Frodo at the gates of Rivendell.


Image: Photo by the author

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