The Meaning of the One Ring in Lord of the Rings

May 27, 2021 by Solar Cross

Lord of the Rings features many a magical artefact but Sauron’s One Ring is by far the most important of them. It is the crux of the whole story, the plot device that drives all the action and preoccupies all the main characters. But what does it mean, what does it signify?

Such a device need not have a deeper meaning beyond being a plot device introduced to create motives for the heroes and a threat from the villains. However no good writer will miss the opportunity add a little weight to a plot device by weaving it with a deeper, less than immediately visible, meaning. And while good writers borrow, great writers steal.

So that left me pondering what a great writer like Tolkien stole in order to add a deeper meaning to the One Ring. What exactly does it represent? I will admit I have pondered this off and on for a long time without really puzzling it out. That is until by chance I read this extract from Plato’s Republic:

They say that to do injustice is, by nature, good; to suffer injustice, evil; but that the evil is greater than the good. And so when men have both done and suffered injustice and have had experience of both, not being able to avoid the one and obtain the other, they think that they had better agree among themselves to have neither; hence there arise laws and mutual covenants; and that which is ordained by law is termed by them lawful and just. This they affirm to be the origin and nature of justice; –it is a mean or compromise, between the best of all, which is to do injustice and not be punished, and the worst of all, which is to suffer injustice without the power of retaliation; and justice, being at a middle point between the two, is tolerated not as a good, but as the lesser evil, and honoured by reason of the inability of men to do injustice. For no man who is worthy to be called a man would ever submit to such an agreement if he were able to resist; he would be mad if he did. Such is the received account, Socrates, of the nature and origin of justice.

Now that those who practise justice do so involuntarily and because they have not the power to be unjust will best appear if we imagine something of this kind: having given both to the just and the unjust power to do what they will, let us watch and see whither desire will lead them; then we shall discover in the very act the just and unjust man to be proceeding along the same road, following their interest, which all natures deem to be their good, and are only diverted into the path of justice by the force of law. The liberty which we are supposing may be most completely given to them in the form of such a power as is said to have been possessed by Gyges the ancestor of Croesus the Lydian. According to the tradition, Gyges was a shepherd in the service of the king of Lydia; there was a great storm, and an earthquake made an opening in the earth at the place where he was feeding his flock. Amazed at the sight, he descended into the opening, where, among other marvels, he beheld a hollow brazen horse, having doors, at which he stooping and looking in saw a dead body of stature, as appeared to him, more than human, and having nothing on but a gold ring; this he took from the finger of the dead and reascended. Now the shepherds met together, according to custom, that they might send their monthly report about the flocks to the king; into their assembly he came having the ring on his finger, and as he was sitting among them he chanced to turn the collet of the ring inside his hand, when instantly he became invisible to the rest of the company and they began to speak of him as if he were no longer present. He was astonished at this, and again touching the ring he turned the collet outwards and reappeared; he made several trials of the ring, and always with the same result-when he turned the collet inwards he became invisible, when outwards he reappeared. Whereupon he contrived to be chosen one of the messengers who were sent to the court; where as soon as he arrived he seduced the queen, and with her help conspired against the king and slew him, and took the kingdom. Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just put on one of them and the unjust the other;,no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a God among men. Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point. And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust. For all men believe in their hearts that injustice is far more profitable to the individual than justice, and he who argues as I have been supposing, will say that they are right. If you could imagine any one obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another’s, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another’s faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice.

GLAUCON IN PLATO’S REPUBLIC

If you can follow that writing style, you will see immediately where Tolkien found his One Ring and it was not under the Mountain with Gollum but in the Republic with Glaucon.

That realisation still leaves a little deciphering as to what the One Ring actually means or represents in Lord of the Rings. What is the power it grants? Superficially it is invisibility, just as with Glaucon’s magic ring. However that is just the method, the purpose of the invisibility as we see in Glaucon’s story, is to grant impunity.

There it is, the true symbolic meaning of Tolkein’s One Ring made clear to me at last. The One Ring, Isildur’s Bane, signifies impunity. It is the immunity from righteous reprisal by those and their allies whom one has injured unjustly. This is absolutely clear from its purpose in the Republic and as we shall later see, in the Lord of the Rings too.

Invisibility as Impunity

One might ask why the exact power which grants impunity is invisibility instead of say regenerating flesh, skin like stone or the ability to teleport out of prison cells?

Those things would grant a measure of impunity but they are fairly fantastical and wholly beyond the artifices of criminals. Whereas invisibility is not as fantastical as first it might seem. In practice it is often the first defence of any criminal, “it was not me, I was not there”.

Wearing a mask, forging an alibi, wearing gloves, prowling at night are all relatively common, easy and accessible tricks to gain a measure of invisibility. The meat of invisibility, and its utility in achieving impunity, is simply to disconnect the identity of the actor from the action. One hardly needs magic to do that.

Invisibility for being more common and accessible has more resonance than a more fantastical power.

The Riddle of the Ring

Another thing one may wonder is why the device is a ring and not a cloak, shield or piece of armour?

Rings are closely bound with the concept of identity. As a piece of jewellery sized to fit an individual, typically rarely removed and decorated with personal emblems they have often served a second function as symbolic representations of a person’s identity or office.

Back when private letters were sealed from prying eyes with wax, they might be marked with the identity of the sender by a shaped stamp pressed into the wax. This was to offer further assurance of privacy since wax marked with an individual symbol is a much harder to refix after tampering than a plain wax seal. Often this stamp or “seal” would be mounted on the collet of a ring for convenience. This is the origin and purpose of signet rings and the precursor to the signature.

Medieval Signet Ring

Thus a ring symbolically represents the concept of identity. This ties in very well with the power of invisibility which in the context of impunity represents nothing less than the ability to hide one’s identity.

Another aspect of rings is their use in representing not so much an individual but an office, such as emperor or pope. A ring then can have a function like a legal instrument, and in the context of these two stories represent legal immunity arising from holding a particular office.

Precious Gold

One common feature to both Glaucon’s ring and Tolkien’s is that they are made of gold. This is emphasised quite strongly by Tolkien but only mentioned in passing by Glaucon.

It is a preferred material for jewellery such as rings because as an highly nonreactive metal it does not corrode which means it plays nice in contact with flesh.

Symbolically gold happens to be strongly associated with wealth, due not only for its relative rarity but also its frequent use as money.

Tolkien’s version of the ring is frequently named “precious”, not merely described as precious, but named so and by many characters. Chief among them would the ring’s long time bearer Gollum. This emphasis of value, by its name “precious” and its material gold may be a hint at the tremendous desirability of impunity, which is the ring’s true meaning.

Virtually everyone who encounters the One Ring is tempted by it, just as they are corrupted by it.

Some Differences in the Rings

Glaucon’s ring physically differs from Tolkien’s, it has a collet while Tolkien’s is unadorned. It is by manipulating the collet of Glaucon’s ring that the ring’s power of invisibility is turned off and on. Recall that the collet of the signet ring is the part of a ring that transmits identity. This underscores that the power of impunity is had by hiding identity.

Tolkien wanted his ring to be unadorned but it still hints at the hiding of identity as a power because its one distinguishing feature, an inscription which uniquely identifies it is ordinarily invisible unless the ring is heated.

Another difference is that Glaucon’s ring appears to be utterly obedient to its master while Tolkien’s is treacherous and wilful. This treacherousness may just have been a plot device to enable Tolkien to pass the ring from one bearer to another, from Isildur to Gollum and from Gollum to Bilbo, in an interesting way.

On the other hand it may be a way for Tolkien to warn that impunity is not something the aspiring criminal can count on, that what might be had in one moment may be lost in another. The story of Isildur rather supports this possibility.

Isildur’s Bane

Impunity is not the same thing as immortality, but it may make the bearer feel like it is. This leads to over-confidence and then carelessness and then doom. That is the story of Isildur in essence.

Isildur does not kill Sauron but he does manage to separate Sauron from his impunity by cutting off the finger that wore the One Ring. Appropriately the weapon used is a sword, an implement often used to symbolically represent justice and judgement.

Having wielded justice however Isildur takes for himself impunity rather take the opportunity to destroy it. At this time we may see impunity as legal immunity rather than as identity hiding, because Isildur as a sword wielding king may represent a justice system rather than criminality like Gollum.

Crafters of law can be tempted award legal immunity to themselves, and this also leads to corruption, as a different kind of impunity to that of invisibility. This may be the lesson of Isildur. A king, he takes for himself impunity, feels himself safe, becomes careless and then is ambushed by orcs, who care nothing for legal immunity. The ring abandons him and so he loses his impunity and dies.

Brother, can you spare a dime?

If you enjoyed your time here would you care to support this site?  Click here for details!

Comments are closed.