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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.