Temptation and the Ring in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring
Published in 1954, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is a follow-up to his 1937 book, The Hobbit. An epic fantasy novel originally published in three volumes (The Fellowship of the King, The Two Towers, The Return of the King), The Lord of the Rings has enthralled audiences for decades. Adapted for radio, television, and finally film, Tolkien’s fictional novel is beloved by both children and scholars alike. What is it that makes Tolkien’s work so interesting? Many enjoy the triumph of good over evil or the excitement of adventure, while others prefer to read the story as an argument against industrialization. It is this diversity which makes Tolkien, and many other children’s stories, so intriguing. Depending on the way which one looks at the story, symbols, themes, and details can all mean different things. One of the more fascinating readings of this British fantasy story is the religious one. Tolkien himself has argued that he did not mean for The Lord of the Rings to be about Christianity, but as Anna Mathie points out in her article “Baptizing-Middle Earth,” one of Tolkien’s letters directly states that he “intended it to be consonant with Christian thought and belief” (71). Especially interesting is the novel’s take on temptation. In The Lord of the Rings, and the first volume—The Fellowship of the Ring—in particular, Tolkien argues for a religious reading by showing that the struggle for the characters to fight the temptation of the Ring is a direct reflection of the temptation faced by those in The Bible.
In order to determine whether or not one should even consider a religious reading of The Lord of the Rings (or The Fellowship of the Ring), one must look at Tolkien himself. Writers often want their works to contain certain messages, while at other times they may be writing simply for entertainment. Often, these works end up being analyzed by scholars in ways that the authors did not foresee or intend. Every little thing about the novel, including the setting, characters, or plot, is often torn apart and dissected. The time period in which the book is written, as well as when it is published, is often a factor in an analysis. Finally, the background of the author and the events of his or her life are discussed. In doing so, readers often make connections that the author did not even realize were there. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s case, his being a Christian is certainly of interest to audiences. It directly gives support to a religious reading of The Lord of the Rings, especially since other parts of Tolkien’s life have influenced his writing. Tolkien’s previous work, The Silmarillion, contains the story of Beren and Lúthien: a tale of two lovers not allowed by society to be together. The inspiration for the lovers comes from Tolkien’s own separation from his love (and later his wife) Edith, explains Jeffrey L. Morrow in his article "J.R.R. Tolkien as a Christian for our Times” (166). Additionally, the love of the mortal man and the female elf mirrors the love of Aragorn and Arwen in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s love life directly influenced his work, and there is no evidence that his religion did not do the same. Morrow is insistent that “Tolkien’s faith was central to his myth” (174).
To begin with a religious reading of The Fellowship of the Ring, one must first consider what the story is literally about: the Ring, or rather, the temptation of the Ring. In order to understand the temptation of the Ring, one must first understand temptation. What is temptation? According to Random House Dictionary, temptation is defined as “the act of tempting; enticement or allurement; the fact or state of being tempted, esp. to evil; and the temptation of Christ by Satan.” It is not so surprising that the word temptation is often linked to something negative or evil, since one of the first times the concept is used is in The Bible. The Holy Bible in Matthew 4 reads, “Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil.” Later, Matthew 6:13 reads, “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one” (The Holy Bible). The negative connotation continues to be used by Tolkien, as seen in The Fellowship of the Ring. The Ring along with temptation, are directly associated with “the evil one.”
All of the characters in The Fellowship of the Ring who interact with the Ring are tempted by it. The characters who don’t have it in their possession want it. If they don’t have the Ring, they try to get it or keep it from those who want it. If they have it, they want to use it. If they use it, they want to use it to get more power. It should be noted that the Ring in Tolkien’s story is not some fancy, bejeweled object. Rather, “it is quite plain,” though it is made of “pure and solid gold” (Tolkien 54). There is significance to the idea that such a small, plain object represents the greatest temptation. Tolkien reaffirms this idea in using a poem Bilbo wrote that is seen in one of Gandalf’s letters: “All that is gold does not glitter” (193). Just because something seems small and unimportant, it does not mean that it is powerless and there will not be any repercussions if one takes or uses it; or, nothing is what it seems. If one is doing a religious reading of The Fellowship of the Ring, he or she may be put in mind of the Garden of Eden story in Genesis. God had said that Adam and Eve were allowed to eat from all of the trees in the garden, with the exception of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Genesis 3:6 reads, “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it” (The Holy Bible). The apple seemed like such a small thing to want and have, yet once the snake convinced Eve to take and eat it, everything changed. Eve was tempted by the apple because it was food, nice to look at, and would give her knowledge. In return she got the attractive food and knowledge, but also paid a high price. She and her husband were kicked out of the Garden of Eden and no longer able to eat from the Tree of Life. In Genesis 3:16, God also punished Eve by putting her under her husband’s rule, and by giving her painful labor pains when she gave birth (The Holy Bible). This temptation and punishment is paralleled in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. In Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, those who are tempted and take the Ring may get what they want, but in the end they pay a price just like Eve did.
One who pays a price for possessing the Ring is Sméagol. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf reveals to Frodo that Sméagol was of “hobbit-kind” and “inquisitive and curious-minded” (Tolkien 57). One day Sméagol’s friend, Déagol, found “a beautiful golden ring; and it shone and glittered in the sun” (Tolkien 58). Watching Déagol, Sméagol grew jealous and was tempted by the Ring. This extreme jealousy caused him to take the Ring by force, and he “caught Déagol by the throat and strangled him, because the gold looked so bright and beautiful” (Tolkien 58). Sméagol’s killing of Déagol mirrors that of Cain jealously killing Abel in The Bible. The story does differ, in that Sméagol and Déagol are not brothers like Cain and Abel. In the article “Cain-Leviathan Typology in Gollum and Grendel,” Brent Nelson addresses this difference by discussing that the similarity and rhyming of the names Sméagol and Déagol points to the two being related in some way. “They are at least brothers in a figurative sense,” says Nelson, “and the results are the same as in the Genesis story: the profound guilt of the murderer, his exile, and a subsequent growth of wickedness.” In Genesis 4:8-12, “Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him,” and a result his punishment was to be a “restless wanderer of the earth” (The Holy Bible). The temptation of the Ring drove Sméagol to murder his friend, and his was forever changed. Like Cain, Sméagol is driven away and “wandered in loneliness” (Tolkien 59).
Gandalf is one of the more powerful characters in The Fellowship of the Ring. Tolkien introduces him as “the great Wizard, Gandalf the Grey” (12). Even one as powerful and wise as Gandalf is tempted by the Ring. He even uses the word ‘tempt’ in relation to the ring. When Frodo offers it to him, he says, “Do not tempt me! For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself…” (Tolkien 67). He even repeats himself, saying, “Do not tempt me!” again and claims that “The wish to wield it would be too great for my strength” (Tolkien 68). Gandalf wants the ring. He may want it in order to use it for good, but he still wants it. Fortunately he realizes that if he seizes it, he could “become like the Dark Lord himself.” Mathie’s “Baptizing Middle-Earth” explains that part of the reason “of why the Ring tempts mortals so strongly is in its promise to let them escape the physical morality God has intended for them. The sinner seeks a more independent existence, but he ends up losing his individuality” (69). What Gandalf does not say, but is strongly implied, is that he would definitely take the Ring if not for the consequences. He, like the other characters in the book, wants more power. Gandalf is already a powerful wizard and possesses magic that most of the characters in The Fellowship of the Ring will never have, but he is still not satisfied with what he has. The idea of a powerful character being tempted may bring to mind the aforementioned temptation of Jesus in the desert. In Luke 4, the Devil led Jesus to the desert where “he was tempted,” saying to Jesus, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If you worship me, it will all be yours” (The Holy Bible). Like Gandalf, Jesus refuses the Devil.
Gandalf is not the only powerful character tempted by the Ring. The Lady of the Wood, Galadriel, also wants it. When Frodo offers it to her, she says, “I do not deny that my heart has greatly desired to ask what you offer. For many long years I have pondered what I might do, should the Great Ring come into my hands…" (Tolkien 410). She strongly wants the Ring. This is on top of the fact that she secretly has one of the three powerful rings given to the elves. Like Gandalf, she has power and wants more; however, like Gandalf, she realizes the consequences of having such an object and refuses it. “I pass the test,” she claims (Tolkien 410). The wording here should be noted. In Greek, tempted can also mean tested. In other words, she overcame her temptation. This directly relates to Jesus being in the desert. That scene is often referred to as the scene where “Jesus is tested in the wilderness” (The Holy Bible). Whether the word is test or tempt, in this case, they both have the same meaning.
As discussed earlier, looking at J.R.R. Tolkien’s prior history of letting events in his life influence his work, one will realize that it is necessary to think about the part his religion played in his writing of The Fellowship of the Ring. Jeffrey L. Morrow reminds the audience that Tolkien “contends that fantasy helps us to see things as they actually are” (172). Tolkien used his The Lord of the Rings to show the world the danger of temptation, just as other children’s fantasy stories tackle tough issues. When one compares the scene where Sméagol jealously kills Déagol to the Biblical scene of Cain killing Abel, one cannot deny the parallels. The same is true when one considers the insignificance of the Ring’s appearance in comparison with the apple in the Garden of Eden. Both objects at first appear small and powerless, though they may look attractive. Unfortunately, they end up causing great trouble to those who use them. Tolkien’s “All that is gold does not glitter” rings true (193). Galadriel and Gandalf’s temptation scenes are reminiscent of Jesus’ temptation of the Devil in the desert. The idea of being all-powerful is refused, and Galadriel, Gandalf, and Jesus all turn away from what is offered. By looking at the different moments of temptation in The Fellowship of the Ring, one can see that the characters’ struggle against temptation reflects certain Biblical scenes. Even without looking at the similarities between Gandalf and Jesus, or Frodo and Jesus, or Aragorn and Jesus, the evidence for a religious reading is enormous. It is only when doing a religious reading that audiences will be able to see the connections that Tolkien obviously (but perhaps unintentionally) made.
Mathie, Anna. "Baptizing Middle-Earth." First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion & Public Life 139 (2004): 69-72. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 22 Nov. 2010.
Morrow, Jeffrey L. "J.R.R. Tolkien as a Christian for our Times." Evangelical Review of Theology 29.2 (2005): 164-177. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 27 Nov. 2010.
Nelson, Brent. "Cain-Leviathan Typology in Gollum and Grendel." Extrapolation (University of Texas at Brownsville) 49.3 (2008): 466-485. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 23 Nov. 2010.
Random House Dictionary. "Temptation." Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com. Web. 24 Nov. 2010. .
The Holy Bible, New International Version. Biblica, 2010. Biblegateway.com. Gospel.com. Web. 20 Nov. 2010. .
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. New York: Ballantine, 2001. Print.