Tolkien and the Ring: Evil Through the Lens of Augustine

Not open for further replies.


Puritan Board Junior
Hey guys, I thought some might be interested in some research I did in college. The following is the speaking draft of a paper I presented a little over a year ago (3/10/07). It was the culmination of a bunch of study I’d done in medieval literature (I was a double major in English and Philosophy, so it was cool to see how they intersected on this issue). Anyhow, I thought some people might be interested in the subject matter. As a note, the I used this edition of the LOTR because it seemed most standard (and most awesome). So all citations are in reference to that book’s page numbers. Enjoy!

Tolkien and the Ring: Evil Through the Lens of Augustine

The nature of evil is a very real question for The Lord of the Rings, especially for understanding the power of the Ring. Considering Tolkien’s background in medieval literature and culture as well as his Catholicism, the writings of St. Augustine can provide us with a lens through which we can read the appearance of evil in Tolkien’s novels. By having an understanding of St. Augustine’s theory of the doctrine of evil we will have a better understanding of how evil operates in this work, and how evil thus affects the moral economy of Middle-Earth.

Augustine’s theory of evil has as the premise that all creation is good because God, its creator, is good, and the creation must reflect the creator. Augustine writes in the Confessions that:
For you (God) evil does not exist at all, and not only for you but for your created universe, because there is nothing outside it which could break in and destroy the order which you have imposed upon it” (Confessions VII:19, 125)
We must note here that not only does evil not exist in any of God’s actions, thoughts, or speech, but his creation is in a natural state of good. There is nothing, not even evil as Augustine believes, that can destroy the ultimate order of creation that God had designed. This idea of the natural origin of creation is seen in Tolkien most clearly when Elrond says that, “nothing is evil in the beginning” (1:281). In other words, at creation no evil exists. As it appears for Augustine and Tolkien, the world is created good and all things within it are naturally in a state of goodness at the beginning. Evil must be a later development or change from the good. Along these same lines, Augustine comments in Christian Teaching[/u, “[things] are good to the extent that they have received their existence from [God]” (24). Existence as a being depends upon having been created by God. And being created by God means that you are good, you reflect the character of your maker.

Now, how does Augustine see something turning from its good nature to having an evil nature? In his City of God, Augustine says:
The first evil act of will, since it preceded all evil deeds in man, was rather a falling away from the work of God to its own works…Consequent deeds were evil because they followed the will’s own line, and not God’s…Moreover, though an evil will is not natural but unnatural because it is a defect, still it belongs to the nature of which it is a defect, for it cannot exist except in a nature” (City of God XIV:11, 568).
We see for Augustine that the prime reason that a will is evil is that it chooses its “own line” over God’s decrees which means that it chooses to act independently of God’s intentions. Satan’s fall for instance was a rebellion against God’s created plan. In choosing one’s own will over God’s will, Augustine believes that the evil will is not necessarily one that is completely focused on one’s self, but rather on anything other than God. Or, as Augustine notes in his famous statement in the Confessions, "He loves you less who together with you loves something which he does not love for your sake” (Confessions 10:40). This is simply said to note that the goodness of love is defiled and half-hearted if it does not hold God as supreme and in the position of highest good. Evil then is to love God less than he deserves to be, to hold something, namely one’s own will and self, over God.

Augustine is convinced that the only way for good to exist in the world is through a displacement of good things from their intended order. So, Adam’s sin was not so much in having an appetite for forbidden fruit, but that Adam put the expressed will and command of God under his own will and desire. Augustine does not allow for inherently evil things from the beginning, but rather requires all things to be good and then depraved. The difference that we need to observe between desire and will is that desire should be understood as the longing for something, and the will being the longing for the thing with a movement of self behind it. It would be the difference between wanting to own that puppy in the window, and walking through the door to buy the puppy in the window. So for an immediate, and brief example, consider the decline of Sméagol into Gollum. Sméagol was originally, a good and noble hobbit, but once he took the Ring, or even desired the Ring, he became an evil character, because as Elrond notes remarks, “the very desire of [the ring] corrupts the heart” (The Lord of the Rings, 1:281). That is, to desire the Ring corrupts it so that when one wills, their volition is corrupt. Desire is the ground from which the fruit of the will spring from. So to desire an evil thing is to have a will that produces evil actions.

What Augustine proposes is that “the loss of good has been given the name ‘evil’” (City of God, XI:9, 440). For Augustine, there is no moral evil that is inherent to a being’s essence, but it is a defect in the creation:
evil has no existence except as a privation of good, down to that level which is altogether without being” (Confessions, 43).
The highest state of existence of Augustine is to be in the most perfect fulfillment of the good order that God has placed a being. When something or someone steps to the right or to the left of this setting, he or she immediately becomes evil, because they are not fulfilling their divinely ordained purpose. In remaining in the location that God has placed them individually, they are good, and receive their full realization of existence from God. Augustine believes that “If we are evil, to that extent we exist less” (Christian Teaching, 24). This is to say that, as a being ceases to reside in the location of created goodness that God has placed him or her, he or she cease to exist in a full realization, and start to fade from complete existence. The more steps this being takes away from being in his or her ordained place they take steps into evil and exist less and less with every stride. The more they remove themselves from their original goodness, the less they exist in the world.

Tolkien’s Ring embodies this nature of evil. When we are first introduced to history of the Ring, Gandalf tells us:
[Gollum] could not get rid of [the Ring]. He had no will left in the matter. The Ring of Power looks after itself, Frodo. It may slip off treacherously, but its keeper never abandons it…It was not Gollum, Frodo, but the ring itself that decided things. The Ring left him. (1: 64-5)
Now this Ring is particularly different than any other inanimate object within Middle-Earth: it has a will. Having its own will reveals that the Ring is within the category of sentient beings. In addition, for Augustine, having a will means that it should have a place in the created order of goodness. Having a will and a place in the created order means that the Ring has knowledge of goodness, and knows that it should abide by this knowledge of good order. Because the Ring has a will, we must consider it, not merely as an object (evil as it is) but also a character. And this is not something that we should pass over lightly: the Ring is not merely a tool of evil; it is a self-perpetrator of evil, although it cannot act on its own it has discernment and will in its own right.

The Ring is sentient; it also is created. In the same conversation with Gandalf that we quoted above, we learn that:
[Sauron] made the Ring himself, it is his, and he let a great part of his own former power pass into it, so that he could rule all the others (1:61).
There are two things to note about this text: what composes the substance of the Ring, and for what purpose this substance was formed into a ring. We will discuss these two points and their final implications for the rest of our time.

First, let us, for a moment, consider what makes up the substance of the Ring. Beyond the metal and gold, we see the Ring as being “a great part of [Sauron’s] former power.” This means that quite literally, a part of Sauron left his own being and joined with a gold ring to form a separate identity, which is particularly startling on many levels. To begin with, it gives us language to describe the creation of the Ring as being a begetting; Sauron begot the Ring. It sounds very similar to the Trinitarian teaching on the relationship between The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in Christian theology, particularly focusing on the relationship between the Father and the Son. In Colossians 1:19 Paul says that in Jesus the “fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” In other words, a part of God dwelt in Christ. Now this sound strikingly similar to the nature of the Ring!

The Trinity, however, is much different than the Ring and Sauron, but recognizing this helps us to understand Augustine’s influence upon their similarities. As we saw before, Augustine believes that all things are created good. With the case of Sauron, this is true. In The Silmarillion, Sauron starts as a being full of goodness, but is later corrupted through choosing his own desires over that of the great song and harmony of creation. Then, as Sauron forms the Ring to be co-equal with him, we see not only a evil mockery of the Trinity, but an incomplete one at that! Sauron begets the Ring, but the Christian God begets the Son and holds in tri-equality the Holy Spirit. Sauron and the Ring form a bi-unit, which is not only evil in its own right, but an incomplete, and therefore, more perverted reflection the Christian Trinity. In Augustinian terms, the loss of good causes Sauron to be perpetually more evil.

Next, let us consider the nature which Sauron passed on to the Ring. As we saw in our quote above, Sauron let “a great part of his own former power pass into” the Ring. Now what is this power? Gandalf says, “The enemy still lacks the one thing (the Ring) to give him strength and knowledge to beat down all resistance” (1:60). The power then, within the Ring itself is Sauron’s strength and knowledge. This strength and knowledge of the Dark Lord took on a life of its own in the Ring. When it passed into the Ring it became self-animated, where as before it was a part of Sauron’s volition. The reason then, that the Ring is evil, is because, much like Sin from the head of Lucifer in Paradise Lost, it was true to its nature, which was evil in Sauron. The Dark Lord had chosen evil and corrupted his being long ago (ref. The Silmarillion), so for the Ring to be “all together evil” as Elrond describes it, is a function of its creator. The will that is in the Ring is a part of that same will with which Sauron originally chose evil, and thus corrupted himself thereby. The Ring cannot choose to do anything but evil because it corrupted its will long ago when it was in Sauron.

Now, very briefly, let us consider why Sauron chose a ring of all objects to pour his strength and power into. Remember that there are nineteen other rings of power, all symbolizing the greatness of their respective races. The other rings each represented significant abilities and power that each of these people had. Remember the creation of the Ring was so that “[Sauron] could rule all the other” rings. How does this fit together then? The way this would work out is that by putting his strength and knowledge into the form and nature of the other rings, he would have a gateway into controlling their power by having his own representative in their class of beings. These other rings are working for good, but as Augustine would comment, the Ring is not “effective but defective” (City of God, XII:7, 479) in that it is desiring to control and pervert them. This is precisely why the poem of the Ring says, “One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them” (1:59). The One Ring, by being invigorated with the power and knowledge of Sauron is the means by which the other rings will be found, bound, and ruled in darkness. As opposed to the redemptive character of the Son in the Trinity, the Ring is destructive in its mission to subject all things to its dominance. Again, another connection with a distorted version of the Trinity.

So then how do we understand the nature of the Ring in relation to Augustine’s doctrine of evil? We can begin by looking at the following line of Augustine: “the loss of good has been given the name ‘evil’” (City of God, XI:9, 440). As we saw in our discussion, the loss of good occurred in Sauron long ago, but the nature he had then is passed to the Ring, who is “all together evil.” The Ring consists entirely of evil, because the nature which exists in it chose evil long ago when it was a part of Sauron. And in this the Ring is being entirely true to its nature to continually choose evil. As Augustine notes: deeds were evil because they followed the will’s own line, and not God’s (City of God, XIV:11, 568). Sauron and the Ring desire only to subject all of Middle-Earth to their rule, there is no care or attention to the will of higher beings, or of the other creatures in Middle-Earth. Any alliance and consultation between Sauron, the Ring, and any other character is only done in deceptive and malicious ways to promote the dominion of the Dark Lord.

A final striking example of how Augustine fills out in Tolkien is the effect the Ring and evil have upon Middle-Earth. We all remember how every person who puts on the Ring disappears (barring Tom Bombadil). Considering that Augustine says: “If we are evil, to that extent we exist less,” the Ring causing its bearer to slip into a land of Shadow, moving the bearer to a land of lesser existence. As Sam notes when he puts on the Ring:
The world changed, and a single moment of time was filled with an hour of thought. At once he was aware that hearing was sharpened while sight was dimmed…All things about him now were not dark but vague; while he himself was there in a grey hazy world, alone, like a small black solid rock, and the Ring, weighing down his left hand, was like an orb of hot gold. (4:343. underline mine).
The Ring causes its wearer to pass into the Ring’s native land: shadow, a place of lesser being. The Shadow for Tolkien is all over The Lord of the Rings. It is continually presented as the land and existence of evil. Notice, it is not that evil does not exist; it exists in a lesser sense than reality, in the same way that the shadow of a person exists in a lesser reality than the person. The Ringwraiths, who while not having possessed the Ring are under its power, only have shadowy bodies. When Sauron dies, a great shadow rises above Mordor, reaching out towards Gandalf and Aragorn, but “ a great wind [takes] it, and it [is] all blown away” and passes (6:227). This is precisely because they have so ceased to exist with the Ring that when their life is taken, there is hardly anything left to pass on. They exist less because they have moved too far away from the intended good order for which they were created. They are thus to that extent evil, and to that extent exist less just as Augustine teaches.

We have seen then, how an understanding of Augustine’s thoughts on evil help us get a fuller vision of Tolkien’s Ring. The Ring is not a simple object. It is a lesser creation made from and containing a portion of the evil will that made it. Its power is to bring its bearer into a lesser existence. Eventually, prolonged exposure corrupts the will so much that the Ring causes a person to cease to exist as a being with a will independent of the Ring. Ancient theology and modern fantasy are not as distant from each other as might have thought.
Not open for further replies.