What might the ring in Tolkien’s great mythical saga signify? It confers great power on its wearer but also corrupts and ultimately destroys. It is referred to as “the ring of power”. So does it just symbolize power? It was forged by the Dark Lord, Sauron. So does it symbolize specifically demonic power?
Jonathan Pageau has an excellent analysis on the symbolism of the ring in The Lord of the Rings on his YouTube channel, The Symbolic World. He talks about other famous rings in Western mythology, from the ring of Gyges in Plato’s Republic, to the ring of the Niebelung in Wagner’s opera. He talks about the elements of binding, of invisibility, of what he calls “supplements”, technology and ornamentation. It’s a nice exploration, definitely worth watching.
Certain points stood out for me. The obvious association with power, the issue of dependency, which paradoxically leads to weakness as well as strength, and the issue of control. Adding the promise of salvation on the one hand and destruction on the other, I realized that here was a perfect description of the Tibetan Wheel of Life.
In the Lord of the Rings, everyone wants the ring, but often for slightly different reasons. The main reason is power. Who wants power in the Wheel of Life? Muppets (or Titans in the original Tibetan version). Muppets are fundamentally power hungry. They want power at all costs, either to extend and defend the power they already have, or to counter the power of their enemies. Whether top dogs or underdogs, all muppets really want is power.
Muggles are a bit different. They don’t want power as such, because they don’t want to stand out too much or put their heads above the parapet. Power is dangerous, after all. They want control. They want to establish a perfectly regulated and safe world with “no alarms and no surprises”. Control here is about control of the immediate environment and the social milieu, including the way other people perceive you. Hence, the central role of the ring as ornament. For muggles, it’s all about control and social status.
Addicts are dependent on the ring. They can’t live without it, because of the feelings of pleasure, expansion and well-being it provides. Golem is the sorry face of a serious ring addict. He is clearly closely related to those strange subterranean creatures of Buddhist mythology, the hungry ghosts.
The ring both gives power and takes it away. Dependence enfeebles the wearer in the long run, until you end up both a weakling and a victim, closer to a domestic animal than a human being.
These are four ways that “the ring of power” exerts its influence on the corruptible human soul. But there are two others, represented by the diva and the demon. Let’s follow the progression from one state to another, the irresistible road to perdition.
The pure soul desires only the good for itself and the world. It finds the ring. When it sees the extraordinary magical power contained within it, it instantly sees the potential for universal salvation. Used in the right way, the ring could solve all the problems that beset mankind. It must be used with great care, but the pure soul will see that only the purest motives employ its boundless power. Things seem to go well when the divas have the ring.
But either the ring is lost or the diva is corrupted. Now the ring is used in the Human World to keep peace and keep control. When the muggles have the ring, the world still seems to run pretty well. Train run on time. Everyone plays their part and sticks to the script. But there is an underlying oppressive feel to life in Muggle Land, which foments some dissatisfaction and rebellion in certain quarters.
The ring is lost again, or perhaps the muggles in charge are corrupted. Or there is a peasant revolt, or some other uprising from the lower echelons of the muggle hierarchy and the ring is lost in the chaos.
Whichever way it goes, the ring finds itself in possession of the muppets. Now we have tyranny and war. The muppets become drunk on power and blood lust and soon become utterly dependent on the ring to maintain their position and their sanity. But the ring is lost again and … is found by a simple hobbit.
The hobbit gets seriously addicted to the ring’s power, which he uses for his own selfish ends. He lives an unnaturally long time, but becomes deformed and monstrous. The ring’s dark magic begins to eat him up from the inside and he become weaker and weaker, until he becomes a helpless victim, an outcast from society, and then, in the final turn of the screw, a demon.
That’s obviously not exactly how the story of The Lord of the Rings goes. I just wanted to show how the symbolic “ring of power” can cause even the purest soul to degenerate, through several stages, until it finally becomes the soul of pure evil.
Frodo’s job was to destroy the ring once and for all in the fires of Mount Doom in the heart of Mordor. There is no other way. The ring always finds its way to its Lord and Maker, and turns everything bad. And he does it (I’m pretty confident that’s not a spoiler). With the ring gone, the world returns to its natural state, peace returns to the land, and Frodo can finally go home to his hobbit hole in Hobbiton.
Jonathan Pageau connects the ring to science and technology. He talks about our dependence on smart phones and social media and alludes to the ongoing development of AI (artificial intelligence). He ends on the slightly tongue in cheek comment that many of us may already be “ring wraiths” without realizing it.
I share his sentiments. The rapid advances in technology in the past few years have, I think created enormous psychological and social problems across the developed world. I agree with Iain McGilchrist that technology is accelerating the dominance of the left hemisphere over the right in the brain’s perception and construction of reality (read his brilliant book, The Master and his Emissary). The left hemisphere is more about control and focused attention, whereas the right is more open and flexible. So, from a purely neurological point of view, we are becoming increasingly muggle-like.
The endless ongoing slagging match that is the Culture War is one glaring example of how technology, and social media in particular, has produced a climate of increased hostility and intolerance and ever increasing polarization. Ordinary people, driven by algorithms, click bait and echo chambers, construct and maintain online personas that are more and more radical and extreme, spouting a bizarre concoction of inflammatory rhetoric and censorious tribal political correctness. Technology is turning us into muppets.
Both children and adults are spending many hours a day in front of a screen, whether it be a phone, TV or computer. Try banning your teen’s screen time. They would rather die than spend all their time offline. It would be social death anyway, because all their friends are constantly updating stuff that they just have to see. Even the parents are hooked. We are all addicts now.
I would argue that the whole victimology epidemic is the result of technology too. In The Coddling of the American Mind, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff draw on a whole raft of evidence to show how the “i-gen”, who are now at university age, is exhibiting massive levels of anxiety, depression and increased rates of self-harm and suicide, as a result of a host of factors directly or indirectly related to information technology.
There has been a steady increase in emotional fragility in the last couple of decades, culminating in the bizarre excesses of university campus culture, where students demand “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” because they can’t cope with challenging or different views to their own.
So, whether or not you choose to throw your mobile phone into the flames, it’s at least worth considering to what degree your engagement with this extraordinarily powerful technology is feeding the diva, muggle, muppet, addict and victim in you. You’re probably nowhere near demon yet, but how will you even know when enough is enough?