What We Know of the Ring

Featured Image Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

You have certainly heard Tolkien’s stories. By now they are as ubiquitous as the tales the Grimm brothers compiled and Hans Christian Andersen rediscovered. All those legends have been relegated to the realm of fairy stories. They are entertainment for children and escapism for adults seeking to recapture their childhood. Those who oppose us think these writings harmless when they think of them at all. For our foes they are at best another resource to be plundered, another source of harmless entertainment to keep the population distracted. It is good that they believe this. Our secrets protect themselves.

Tolkien spoke of other Rings and other craftsmen. The Numenorean magic that helped Sauron forge his Ring has long since been swallowed by the sea. Today our enemies must rely on other technologies to forge their Rings. Do not underestimate their craft. Sauron could only observe his foes with a Palantir. He could only learn his enemy’s position by such knowledge as he could glean from his ravens and Nazgul. The Shadow we fight has cameras on every corner. With a few keystrokes it can pull up your location, your family, your political leanings, and anything else it might find interesting. Sauron only had one eye: the Shadow has billions.

The Shadow has an army of Grima Wormtongues in its service. They shout lies then insist they are truths. They goad their mobs with buzz words like spearmen leading herds off a cliff. They tell us what their Master wants us to hear and malign anyone who might expose their treachery. Some of us have been targeted by these Wormtongues: if you join our cause you may find yourself in their sights. They are foes to be reckoned with and will stop at nothing to see you silenced. But more discerning eyes might note a hint of desperation behind that show of strength. What truth requires such displays of force to blossom — and what force can make a lie take root?

Because you have seen through their lies, you may think yourself immune to them. You are not. The Shadow has shaped the futures you see. It has created the world you live in and from which you imagine all other possible worlds. You may want to elect a new Dark Lord who will support your favorite causes and put the last Dark Lord’s advisors in prison. You may want to reshape the system which oppresses us into one which better suits your ideas of justice. You may want to throw your hands up in despair. All of these act in the Shadow’s service. Many are the ways by which Mordor seeks to expand its borders.

We appear to be on a hopeless Quest. But of course every Quest appears hopeless. Our ancestors were well aware of human frailty: their man-god myth hinges both on our frailty and our capacity for redemption. While Tolkien gave us two terrifying accurate portraits of the Shadow in Sauron and Morgoth, he also showed us our opponent’s blind spots. The man who mapped the mountains of Mordor provided a hidden passage by which the bravest and most desperate might find a way to victory.

When asked who was the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven, our ancestral man-god called forth a child and told the crowd “unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” This notion also appears in one of our surviving Grail legends. Parsifal is a “pure fool” who heals the wounded King after conquering the evil sorcerer Klingsor and returning with the Sacred Lance and Holy Grail. And like Matthew and Wagner, Tolkien saw that the greatest wisdom can come from the simple and the greatest bravery from the humble.

Already the Ring tempted him, gnawing at his will and reason. Wild fantasies arose in his mind; and he saw Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age, striding with a flaming sword across the darkened land, and armies flocking to his call as he marched to the overthrow of Barad-dur. And then all the clouds rolled away, and the white sun shone, and at his command the vale of Gorgoroth became a garden of flowers and trees and brought forth fruit. He had only to put on the Ring and claim it for his own, and all this could be. In that hour of trial it was his love of his master that helped most to hold him firm; but also deep down in him lived still unconquered his plain hobbit-sense: he knew in the core of his heart that he was not large enough to bear such a burden, even if such visions were not a mere cheat to betray him. The one small garden of a free gardener was all his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm; his own hands to use, not the hands of others to command.

“And anyway all these notions are only a trick,” he said to himself.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

When Hobbits get hold of the Ring, they seem most impressed by its ability to make the wearer invisible. Those more learned in Ring-lore seek its power to make one seen. Hobbits are by nature a simple folk with an aversion to adventures and a disinterest in empires. This makes them remarkably resistant to the Ring’s charms. In all the annals of Middle Earth, the only Ring-bearers who voluntarily gave the Precious away were Bilbo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee. The spell which ensnared brave warriors and great wizards proved ineffective against the small and meek. The Shadow’s magic is unsurpassed at rooting out and feeding corruption. It has no power over purity.

This may seem unhelpful at first glance. Purity and innocence have become decidedly unfashionable as of late. When you have spent your life amidst filth the idea of cleansing may seem like a pipe dream. Our ancestors called our weakness by many names: the Fall of Adam, the Propensity to Sin, Human Depravity. They also spoke of Salvation through the Cross. We will only triumph when we turn our attention away from the Ring and toward that Cross. We will only dethrone the Shadow when we kneel before the true King.

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