Whether from the books or the films, multiple interpretations have been drawn from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings trilogy. Although there are hundreds of points to analyse in Tolkien’s meticulously detailed Middle Earth, the most potent symbol is that of the One Ring.
Tolkien himself has confirmed that he did not assign one particular meaning to it, preferring readers to be free to interpretation. This has led to widespread debates on what the One Ring could represent, with its dark, possessive abilities enslaving all those that pursue it. Rather than trailing through the internet in research of what it could mean, we’ve complied a handy list exploring the symbolism of the One Ring from all different perspectives:
An obvious interpretation of the One Ring is that it symbolises, quite simply, Evil. Not just that of hate or envy, but pure, unmotivated Evil. Lord Sauron – who forged the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom – is depicted as an inhuman spirit, not bound by mortality or science. His soul can transverse beyond the physical realm, still present through in the One Ring even after being “killed” in battle.
Almost like a Horcrux of Middle Earth, the One Ring embodies Sauron’s powers to influence those around it. Sauron gathers and builds armies to destroy Middle Earth without any real motive other than power. The One Ring is an indestructible force of Evil, that lays wake to death, destruction and darkness.
The fact Tolkien conveyed this sense of Evil through an object, rather than a living being, suggests Evil is not a product of mankind. Instead, it exists as a metaphysical energy that man must work to destroy. It does not represent malcontent villainy or cruelty, but the spirit of Evil itself. It is a ring, not a man or a creature. Therefore, it does not seek wealth or power. It is simply Evil, without cause or reason, ensnaring anyone that touches it.
It’s this lack of motivation that feeds its power, as it is not weakened by trying to reach any goal. You cannot negotiate with Evil, as it wants nothing for itself. Only to destroy everything and everyone. This is why Frodo must go to great lengths to destroy it – only dissolvable in the fires from which is bred, by a supernatural spirit (Sauron), possibly representative of Satan.
One of the key characteristics of Tolkien’s iconic plot device is its effect on man. The One Ring is not just evil in itself, but practices its power through whoever bears it. Frodo is entrusted to carry the One Ring to Mordor because his purity makes him the most resistant- though even he succumbs to the One Rings powers when reaching Mount Doom. The phrase “absolute power corrupts absolutely” can be perfectly applied to Tolkien’s symbol of the One Ring. After all, it is “One Ring to Rule Them All”, thus absolute power is what the ring promises.
The Lord of The Rings suggests the One Ring holds a power above all else, able to control and rule whole realms. But this is a double-edged sword. Although power itself is not inherently bad, it will always corrupt those who have it, perhaps as an allegory for human nature. Boromir almost kills Frodo after few moments under the One Rings allure, and Galadriel becomes demonically enraged at the prospect of becoming an all-powerful Queen. No matter who has it, the ring-bearer will always become possessed and corrupted by its absolute power, such that even to look at it is dangerous.
Due to Middle Earth being populated by a whole host of creatures and beings, each individual responds differently the One Ring. Hobbits, it seems, are the least susceptible because of their simple lifestyle and kind hearts, desiring a peaceful life over that of other men. Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin all fantasize the simplicity of the Shire at some point during their journey, as Hobbits are not inherently desirous of power. This contrasts to the men and elves who seek castles and thrones – even without the One Ring – making their races more corruptible as a whole.
However, the idea that “absolute power corrupts absolutely” must apply to every being, no matter their size or disposition. Although it seems Frodo does resist temptation – with the One Ring eventually being destroyed – it is arguably due to accident rather than Frodo’s exemption from corruptibility. After putting the One Ring on his finger, Gollum attacks Frodo to get it back for himself. He bites Frodo’s finger off and bounds about in glee of regaining his “precious”. Yet when Frodo pushes Gollum (and the One Ring) into the fire, it isn’t necessarily because he wants to destroy it. Instead, he is simply harbouring the same response Gollum had moments before, attacking Gollum to prize the One Ring back for himself. As their fight takes place on the edge of the platform, they both fall off, so frenzied by desire for the One Ring that they forget their surroundings. The One Ring falls into the lava below and is consequently destroyed, leaving Frodo within an inch of his life.
Although Frodo technically destroyed the One Ring, it was arguably through his want for the One Rings power. The One Ring itself isn’t evil. After all, it’s just a ring. But the fact it is “One Ring to Rule Them All” assures the absolution of power will always be corrupted in the hands of mankind.
It’s not merely that people want the One Ring, but they feel physically compelled by it. Almost anyone that sees it become immediately fixated in a trance, staring at the One Ring as everything around them dissolves. They still have a chance to turn back, though. Gandalf and Aragorn both ponder taking the One Ring momentarily before turning their back, telling Frodo to keep it away from them. For others, this isn’t the case. Once the One Ring has been put on, there’s no turning back. Like taking a drug for the first time, you’ve set the path of addiction for yourself.
Take Gollum, for example. Despite the fact the One Ring has destroyed his life, isolating him from the world, changing his personality and depleting his health (skeletal and unnaturally old), he still craves the One Ring. Gollum has no other purpose in life other than gaining back the One Ring, obsessed with it. Addicted to it. The One Ring could be a symbol of addiction, having similar characteristics of hard drugs, gambling or alcohol. Not to be confused as symbolic of the drug itself- it’s not quite that straightforward. It represents the concept of addiction as whole, which could easily be applied to abstract things such a power, rather than just physical ones.
After the One Ring has been worn, the ringbearer becomes hooked, dependant on its effects even if they are bad. For some people, it takes longer to become intoxicated. Frodo seems unaffected by the One Ring at first, but as the story transgresses, he begins to fall into its trap. He lays awake at night, stroking the One Ring, until his whole personality begins to shift. Mood swings and compulsion begin to take over as telling signs of addiction. All caused under the symbolic influences of the One Ring.
Some people may perceive the One Ring as an interchangeable prop. It’s the effects the One Ring has on people, rather than the object itself, that’s important. It could easily be a piece of clothing, a potion or a crystal ball, so long as it’s alluring, dark properties remain the same. However, others may believe the form the One Ring is an important factor when deciphering its symbolism. Tolkien chose the form of a golden ring for a reason, as it represents a specific form of power: wealth. It does connote military power (in which case it would be a weapon), but the power money and riches endanger.
The fact the One Ring is a piece of jewellery – a golden one at that – suggests that it’s figurative of wealth and materialism. Just like Smaug covets away his treasure in Tolkien’s prequel The Hobbit, man has a tendency to lust after jewels and coins as a solidifier of power. Crowns demand authority, and gold ensure comfort. But these materialistic desires only lead to greed and corruption. Whoever wants the One Ring wants it only for themselves or for its destruction (which ultimately leads to wanting it for themselves). They may claim to use the One Ring for good, but this is always a lie when greed becomes the eventual fate of wealthy men. Smaug can never have too much treasure, just as mankind can never have too much money.
Hollow and lifeless, the One Ring gets lost underwater and forgotten for thousands of years. It is only once the possibility for wealth arises, when the One Ring is rediscovered by Gollum, that its damaging potential for greed ensues. Tolkien analogizes humankind’s greed through the One Ring. After all, it is just an object. But the form it takes – golden and shiny – gives it value. At least, in the eyes of people. Really, such a fruitless and empty item should mean nothing…compared to that of love, fellowship and nature. But it does. Once in the hands of man, it becomes corrupting and dark. The One Ring is a ring for a reason; it represents the type of temporal power Kings and ordinary men alike strive towards. A wealth that will always spawn greed and corruption, according to Tolkien.
When those who face the One Ring feel compelled by its forces, they have a decision to make: take it or leave it. Many characters from The Lord of the Rings are tested on their ability to resist the One Ring, such as Aragorn and Gandalf. If the “dark Lord” Sauron is viewed as symbolic of Satan, then the One Ring can be read as symbolic of Temptation. In the same way the snake – representative of the devil – tempted Adam and Eve in the biblical story of Creation, Sauron tempts people with the One Ring. This is how he recruits followers, as men fall into corruption and darkness if they fail to resist temptation.
The Temptation symbol can also be perceived in a non-religious light, seen as a general temptation of mankind. It could tempt something in particular (wealth or power, for example) or simply represent the idea of Temptation. Boromir betrays The Fellowship when falling to the One Rings influence, signalling weakness in his character. However, the more strong-willed members of The Fellowship are able to resist – not because they don’t want to, but they are strong enough to pass the test posed by the One Ring.
War/Weapons of Mass Destruction
The context of The Lord of the Rings must be taken into account when analysing its messages and themes. Tolkien wrote the trilogy during the 1940s, only a few years after the Second World War. As an intelligent man teaching English at Oxford University, alongside experience on the field, Tolkien would have certainly been politically aware.
Many have suggested the plot device of the One Ring to connote weapons of mass destruction. The atomic bomb had been tested, destroying thousands of lives in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Cold War tensions were brewing. Nuclear weaponry was a new and terrifying aspect of warfare, which had proved fatal during Tolkien’s time. The fact these weapons were not only being invented but used on innocent civilians exhibited the destructive powers of government. The first instalment of The Lord of the Rings was written in 1948- the same decade that saw the terror or mass weaponry. Therefore, the One Ring could easily be read as representative of this new threat.
In the hands of the wrong person, the One Ring could bring Middle Earth to the ground. The enslaved, dishevelled future of the realm is entirely within reach if the One Ring remains. The One Ring makes the number of soldiers and fortification irrelevant, as the side that has it will automatically win. But this isn’t a short-term victory. It is one that could end every race in Middle Earth – Elves and wizards included. Tolkien could be demonstrating the dangerous powers of nuclear weapons through the One Ring…a power that remains in the hands of the few, but can destroy the many.
Power and wealth are both by-products of Fame. And with Fame often comes Ego. The Ego of man – their arrogance, greed and self-importance – is amplified when wearing the One Ring. In psychoanalysis, the Ego creates a sense of personal identity, a sense which becomes warped by the One Ring, and magnified into narcissism. The want for fame and glory stems from an overactive ego, and can be provided by the One Ring (but with a price).
The One Ring does bring Fame, but also a darkness. As the Ringbearer becomes obsessed with power, dominance and themselves, their Ego takes over, consuming their humanity. They become brainwashed into an alter-ego, symbolising what the Greek dubbed the “eidolon” or “counterfeit consciousness”. The Ego forms us as a person, but can also isolate us from the outside world. Just as the One Ring does.
Gollum is given unnaturally long life and becomes devoted solely to himself. He seeks only his “precious”, leading Frodo to his death in an elaborate scheme to get it back. The Ego pushes us to stay alive, going to great lengths to avoid death- just like Gollum, who under the One Ring’s influence stops aging. But this isn’t to say he remains youthful; Gollum becomes deformed and malnourished, feeding off the One Ring that represents his enlarged Ego.
A claim to Fame is equivalent to claim to Ego: you become disconnected to real world and consumed by personal identity, often yearning for immortality. When Faramir sees the One Ring, his immediate thought is Fame. He sees it as an opportunity to claim reputation, popularity and dominance, all rooted in the Ego of his consciousness. Faramir isn’t particularly interested in wiping out Middle Earth or finding treasure, but giving prestige to his name. In other words, his Ego wishes for Fame- a wish the One Ring intensifies and makes possible.
Although the typical sign of infinity is a side-ways number eight, a circle is often considered symbolic of it too. A ring has no beginning and no end; it is continuous and ever-lasting. If Tolkien wanted to convey ideas on riches or sovereignty, he could have equally chosen a jewel or a necklace as a vessel for Sauron’s soul. Yet he didn’t; he chose a ring. This could be entirely coincidental, or could be Tolkien’s every intention.
The One Ring cannot be broken easily. Gandalf fails to burn it in a fire, just as Gimli fails to chop it with his axe. The One Ring has endured thousands of years – many of which were spent on the battle filed or underwater – without a scratch. The One Ring is impeccably gold and completely in-tact, only destructible in the fires of Mount Doom. Just as the shape of a ring is infinite, so is the One Rings life, never tarnishing or decaying with time…
We could go on for hours about the different possibilities of the One Ring. There are still tons of theories out there- Loss of Innocence, Religion, Dictatorship, Slavery. The list goes on. But what do you think? Perhaps you agree with one from our list, or have a completely different interpretation on it. Maybe you think the One Ring symbolises nothing at all, and is purely a means to generate the plot. As Tolkien says, it’s down to the reader to decide.
(Please note these are just theories, and not necessarily the intention of the author/filmmaker)