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Temptation is a central theme in J.R.R Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings. Many characters throughout the novel are tempted to use the power of the Ring to change the world as they see fit. Some seek to use its power for selfish, personal gain, while others, out of ignorance, believe they can accomplish great acts of good with the power of the Ring at their disposal. Regardless of their intentions, the Ring is able to influence people in mysterious ways, making them lash out or act abnormally. Tolkien did an excellent job demonstrating the perils of temptation in The Lord of The Rings; and as temptation is a major theme in Christianity and Tolkien a devout Catholic, there are parallels between how temptation is portrayed in his work and how it is presented in Christianity.
Tolkien’s mother was a Catholic convert and a single mother for much of his childhood. His father had fallen ill and died in South Africa leaving his wife to care for Tolkien and his brother in the UK. Tolkien’s mother worked very hard to maintain her family but sadly passed away while Tolkien was still a child, “Overworked and isolated for her Catholicism, she died not long after Tolkien’s First Communion, but not before assigning guardianship of her sons to a priest and friend at the Birmingham Oratory, Father Francis Morgan, who continued their instruction in the faith (they celebrated Mass with him each day before their studies)” (How Did J.R.R. Tolkien’s Catholicism Influence His Writing?).
Tolkien remained a devout Catholic for the rest of his life. In a 1953 letter to a friend and priest, Father Robert Murray, Tolkien explained how religion affected his writing, “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like ‘religion’, to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.”
Tolkien’s Christian upbringing has undoubtedly affected the subjects and themes of his writing. One of the most noticeable being the struggle against temptation. Featured heavily throughout his writing in The Lord of The Rings, it is also large aspect of Christianity. In The Oxford English Dictionary temptation is described as “The action of tempting or fact of being tempted, esp. to evil; enticement, allurement, attraction” (“Temptation”). The struggle against temptation not only is a constant throughout The Lord of The Rings but is also very prevalent throughout the Bible. “No evils shall happen to him that feareth the Lord, but in temptation God will keep him, and deliver him from evils” (Sirach 33:1) and “Let no temptation take hold on you, but such as is human. And God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that which you are able: but will make also with temptation issue, that you may be able to bear it.” (Corinthians 10:13)
Being vital to the story, Tolkien made sure to establish the allure and temptation of the Ring early within the first chapter. Directly after Bilbo’s speech and disappearance, he headed back to his home to prepare for his departure. Gandalf came in shortly after and began conversing with Bilbo concerning his future plans, and more importantly, to ensure Bilbo left the Ring according to their prior agreement. At first Bilbo comes across as somewhat hesitant and annoyed at the prospect of giving up the ring, yet still compliant. He tells Gandalf, “‘I don’t like parting with it at all, I may say. And I don’t really see why I should. Why do you want me to?’ he asked, and a curious change came over his voice. It was sharp with suspicion and annoyance” (The Fellowship of The Ring 41). But then as Gandalf proceeds to explain to Bilbo the truth of the matter Bilbo becomes visibly angry and hostile towards the prospect of losing the Ring.
“Bilbo flushed and there was an angry light in his eyes. His kindly face grew hard. ‘Why not?’ he cried. ‘And what business of is it of yours, anyway, to know what I do with my own things? It is my own. I found it. It came to me.’ ‘Yes, yes,’ said Gandalf. ‘But there is no need to get angry.’ ‘ If I am it is your fault,’ said Bilbo. ‘ It is mine, I tell you. My own. My precious. Yes, my precious'” (The Fellowship of The Ring 42).
However with some persuasion from Gandalf, Bilbo is able to overcome the temptation of the Ring and leave it behind. This scene is especially significant as it is the first time the Ring’s influence and power over people is alluded to in the story. Tolkien is able to set a sort of precedent for how the Ring is to affect characters throughout The Lord of The Rings and establish the threat it poses to those who possess it.
Not everyone is resilient enough to resist the temptation of the Ring, and those that are able to resist are by no means immune to its allure. Tolkien demonstrates what becomes of those who succumb to the Ring in Chapter 2 when Gandalf is explaining to Frodo the history of the Ring. Gandalf tells Frodo of how Gollum was overcome by his desire for the Ring and murdered his friend Deagol. “…he caught Deagol by the throat and strangled him, because the gold looked so bright and beautiful” (The Fellowship of The Ring 62). The Ring consumed Gollum and he paid dearly for his weakness. According to Alberto Mingardi, “The Lord of the Rings is the epic journey to destroy the One Ring, which symbolizes power – and this is very clear when you understand that the Ring not only confers power but also imposes serfdom on the wearer. The man who wears the Ring becomes a slave at the same time as he is made supremely powerful.” This idea is later reinforced when Gandalf says “It was not Gollum, Frodo, but the Ring itself that decided things” (The Fellowship of The Ring 65). So the Ring doesn’t entice people to take control as much as it ensnares them with lust for power. The idea that one is tempted and ensnared by sin appears frequently within the Bible. One such example was used in reference to the worship of idols, “Therefore there shall be no respect had even to the idols of the Gentiles: because the creatures of God are turned to an abomination, and a temptation to the souls of men, and a snare to the feet of the unwise” (Wisdom 14:11). According to the Bible, giving into the temptation of sin will result in one becoming an abomination in the eyes of God.
Bilbo himself was tempted by the Ring once again in Chapter 1 of Book II. Frodo encountered Bilbo during his stay in Rivendell and after a brief but happy reunion Bilbo immediately began to inquire about the Ring. “‘Have you got it here?’ He asked in a whisper” (The Fellowship of The Ring 244). Hesitantly, Frodo allowed Bilbo to look at the Ring. Bilbo put out his hand. But Frodo quickly drew back the Ring. To his distress and amazement he found he was no longer looking at Bilbo; a shadow seemed to have fallen between them and through it he found himself eyeing a little wrinkled creature with a hungry face and bony groping hands” (The Fellowship of The Ring 244). Luckily Bilbo was able to resist the temptation once more and told Frodo to put the Ring away.
The Ring’s temptation doesn’t always come in the form of malice. Many mistakenly believe they can use the Ring’s power for good. Gandalf himself refused to touch the Ring because he was well aware of its ability to corrupt even those with good intentions. Initially Frodo didn’t want to bear the burden of the Ring and offered it to Gandalf. “‘Do not tempt me! For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself. Yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good” (The Fellowship of The Ring 71). Similarly in the Bible it is mentioned how temptation isn’t necessarily born out of a place of malice and even people with noble intentions and a strong will can be ensnared. “Watch ye, and pray that ye enter not into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh weak” (Matthew 26:41). Boromir was also tempted to use the Ring’s power for good. “For you seem ever to think only of its power in the hands of the Enemy: of its evil uses not of its good… It is a gift, I say; a gift to the foes of Mordor. It is mad not to use it, to use the power of the Enemy against him” (The Fellowship of The Ring 414). After ranting on about his plans to use the power of the Ring against Sauron he came to the realization that Frodo would not give up the Ring willingly and attempted to take it through force. “‘For I am too strong for you, halfling,’ he cried; and suddenly he sprang over the stone and leaped at Frodo. His fair and pleasant face was hideously changed; a raging fire was in his eyes.” Frodo was able to escape Boromir by putting on the Ring and becoming invisible. Boromir later came back to his senses, realizing the Ring’s power had tempted him. Here Tolkien has shown that individuals who wish to do good are still at risk of temptation by evil just as how it was described in Mathew 26:41.
As the Ring’s temptation was a constant throughout the Lord of The Rings it plays a pivotal role in the climax in Return of The King. Frodo and Sam had traveled very long and far to destroy the Ring once in for all in the fires of Mt. Doom. The destruction of the Ring was the sole purpose of their quest and they had resisted it’s temptation thus far. However, when confronted with the opportunity to destroy the Ring once and for all, Frodo hesitated.
“Then Frodo stirred and spoke with a clear voice, indeed with a voice clearer and more powerful than Sam had ever heard him use, and it rose above the throb and turmoil of Mount Doom, ringing in the roof and walls. ‘I have come,’ he said. ‘But I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine!’ And suddenly as he set it on his finger, he vanished from Sam’s sight” (Return of The King 223).
After resisting its allure for the majority of The Lord of The Rings, Frodo finally gave into the temptation of the ring. Luckily for the sake of Middle Earth Frodo wasn’t the only one to give into the temptation of the Ring on Mount Doom. Gollum attacked Frodo, bit off his finger, and wrestled the Ring from him. “‘My Precious! O my Precious!’ And with that, even as his eyes were lifted up to gloat on his prize, he stepped to far, toppled, wavered for a moment on the brink, and then he fell. Out of the depths came his last wail Precious, and he was gone” (Return of The King 224). Ultimately Gollum’s lack of self control and enslavement to the Ring were his demise, but at the same time his weakness inadvertently saved Middle Earth and accomplished Frodo’s quest during his time of weakness. Thus proving that those unable to break free from the Ring’s grasp and resist temptation will ultimately be brought to their doom. The concept that giving into temptation will ultimately result in loss and suffering can be seen in the Bible as well. In the story of Eden, Eve gives in to the temptation to eat the fruit and pays the price when she and Adam are cast out of the Garden of Eden. “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” (Temptation and the Ring in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring). Gollum never truly gave up his desire for the Ring and paid with his life when he snapped on Mount Doom. Frodo fell into the Ring’s temptation as well, and he did not escape unscathed as his inaction during the moment of truth ultimately cost him his finger.
The temptation of the Ring plays a major role in The Fellowship of The Ring, both driving the plot forward and forcing characters to confront and resist the urge to use its power as they see fit. Furthermore, witnessing how different characters deal with the Ring plays a vital role in character development. Tolkien was able to draw upon lessons taught during his Catholic upbringing and apply this aspect of temptation as a driving force behind his novel.
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Gilligan, Kathleen. “Temptation and the Ring in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring.”Student Pulse. 1 Jan. 2011. Web. 13 Feb. 2015.
Mingardi, Alberto. “Tolkien v. Power.” Mises Daily. Mises Institute, 21 Feb. 2002. Web. 13 Feb. 2015.
“Temptation” Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. 2015
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Lord of the Rings Part One: The Fellowship of the Ring. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1987. Print.
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Tolkien, J. R. R. The Lord of the Rings Part Three: The Return of The King. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1987. Print.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Lord of the Rings Part Two: The Two Towers. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1987. Print.
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