Though J. R. R. Tolkien didn’t want his readers to speculate on deeper meanings in the Lord of the Rings (LOTR)–he wanted them to focus on the story itself–he did admit over the years that some parts of the series had much more complex meanings.
The most important of these is the One Ring itself. What does it mean? What does it represent? I contend it stands for the same thing as the biblical picture of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. And like any great metaphor, it sheds light on a very complicated truth.
One question my LOTR friends and I have asked each other is this: “How do you think the One Ring would have affected you?” Though for years I doubted it would have had much influence on me, as I get older I realize how foolish that position is. But let me give some background before I explore the questions about the Ring further.
Some of you reading this are not familiar with the Lord of the Rings or the Ring itself. It would be impossible for me to do an adequate summary, but I’ll try to catch you up.
In Tolkien’s cosmology (world-making), God’s name is Illuvitar, which means Creator. After Illuvitar created all the original Valar (equivalent of the Angels) one of these went rogue and created evil in the world. For all of time, the battle between Good and Evil would take place. In this sense, the world of Middle Earth is exactly like our world. It is the problem the human race has always encountered.
A while later, these Eldar also created other beings; that is when the Elves came into existence. The elves were immortal and were full of light and joy. They were created to be a living shield against the works of darkness.
But the evil force in Middle-earth created other beings who hated the elves and all immortals and sought to control them. Chief among these was Sauron. Sauron noticed that one of the most influential elves, Celebrimbor, was especially gifted in creating beautiful rings. Sauron secretly hoped to use those rings to control the elves.
In the world of Middle-Earth, rings represented more than just jewelry or a covenant relationship. The maker of rings imbued part of his own power into them. Sometimes, other power could be placed in a ring if the maker had authority to do so.
Celebrimbor made 19 rings, all of which were supposed to be given to elves. But while he was finishing the making of the rings, Sauron devised a way to make One Ring which had the power to overwhelm and control the wearers of the other rings. He did this in secret of course; but the only way it would work is if he imparted most of his life-force (soul) into the ring. Therefore, if the One Ring is ever destroyed, he would be too.
Of course, this is what happens at the end of Lord of the Rings.
When 16 of the rings were made, Sauron–who had been involved with helping Celebrimbor make them–took the rings for himself. He was not aware at that moment that there were three more rings which Celebrimbor had fashioned in secret. Sauron took the 16 rings and gave nine of them to men and seven to dwarves. The One Ring Sauron wore openly on his own finger.
As a result, war began between the elven kingdoms and Sauron, which did not stop until the One Ring was destroyed. The hidden three rings were given to elven rulers. As soon as they put on their rings, they could see the true evil nature of Sauron. They immediately took off their rings, preventing Sauron from having power over them.
We later learn that one of the Elven Rings went to Gandalf, a wizard. This comes into this article later.
In this article, I want to do two things. First, I want to show the meaning of the Ring and how that meaning applies to our lives today. Second, I hope to point how the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil encompasses the same meaning as the One Ring. I know that’s a lot to bite off, but please bear with me as I go through this.
At one point in the history of the Ring, Sauron’s hand is cut off and the ring falls into the river and is seemingly lost forever. But the Ring always had a way of finding its way back to Sauron. A young hobbit was swimming one day and he found the ring at the bottom of the river. He brought it up and showed it to his cousin Smeagol. The two of them both wanted the ring and so they struggled for it. Smeagol killed his cousin and ran off with the ring, becoming separated from all friends and family.
If you think this sounds like the Cain and Abel story, you are not mistaken. Tolkien admitted as much in an interview before his death.
Just as the influence of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil touched everyone in Adam’s world, so the one Ring affected everyone for evil in Middle-earth. Centuries later, Smeagol (now called Gollum) lost the ring to another hobbit named Bilbo Baggins. Bilbo’s time with the ring is told in “The Hobbit” and I won’t review that here. Bilbo eventually passed the ring on to his nephew Frodo who was the one to eventually carry the ring to its destruction in the Lord of the Rings books.
(Along the way, two other persons handled the ring as well, a friend of Frodo’s named Sam Gamgee, and a peculiar creature named Tom Bombadill. Neither of them were particularly impressed with the ring or overly affected by it. More about the two of them in a later article).
The ring had several effects on most people who carried it for any length of time:
- It caused the wearer to be invisible to the physical world and visible to the spirit realm where Sauron lived.
- It caused the wearer to be immortal while wearing the ring. They would not get much older.
- They fell in love with the ring. That love was all-encompassing and caused the wearer to become jealous and protective of the Ring.
- The wearer’s body would be stretched thin, as if they were disappearing from the realm of the world and sucked into the world of unclean spirits.
- When they put the ring on, the wearer was visible to Sauron and his servants and eventually Sauron could draw the wearer to the side of evil.
- The physical nature of the wearer would become deformed the longer they wore the ring.
So why would anyone want to wear the Ring if it had this kind of degrading effect? For the three hobbits who wore the ring most often (i.e. Smeagol, Bilbo, and Frodo), its appeal outweighed its dangers. As they wore the ring, they were safe from attack from the world around them. They could be invisible and thus find out things that others kept secret. They could control their world with stealth and relative safety.
And this is where the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil comes into the metaphor. The appeal of the Ring is the same appeal that the Tree had to Adam and Eve. The fruit of the Tree would please them. It would cause them to know deep things about evil. And it would allow them to do all this in secret, delving into mysteries with their own choice as the driving force.
The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was a proscribed tree. It was the only place Adam and Eve were not allowed to go. They could not eat of its fruit or touch it. If they did, a process of death would begin and they would be cut off from the other primary tree in the garden: The Tree of Life.
So what is the deep significance of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil? Essentially, in life, there are two ways we can “know” something. We can learn about that something from a person who knows more than we do. I call that “learning by revelation.” You learn because you are taught. Or, the second way to know something is by trial and error. We call this “learning by experience.”
Both ways to know something are fraught with potential dangers. If you learn by “Revelation” you are at the mercy of the one who teaches you. There is a trust relationship required in this learning process. You are trusting the one who teaches to be accurate and helpful. If they give you wrong information or guidance, it could be very destructive.
But the same thing is true of learning things by experience. You may eat a poisonous leaf, cut off a finger on a table saw, break your neck while climbing a tree, etc. Learning by experience is a dangerous and dark road, only occasionally netting brilliant results. Yet, this is the road that leads to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
It is in God’s nature to instruct his children. Since there is good and evil in the universe, and has been since before mankind existed according to the biblical record, God would want mankind to know about it. But since we were created to be in a relationship with God, it is likely God wanted us to know good and evil by way of “Revelation”. The walking/talking relationship with God would afford that.
But the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is the convenient shortcut to all of that. The moment Eve and Adam tasted its fruit, their eyes were opened. To what exactly their eyes were opened to will be discussed in a moment. But, the second they ate the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they knew the difference between the two by EXPERIENCE. And it taught them well. They knew immediately they had disobeyed and disappointed God. When God came to manifest His presence with them a little while later, they hid from God.
This is one of key parallels between the One Ring and the Tree. Both entities cause a desire for the person to hide away from others. The Ring manifests this by cloaking its wearer. The Tree does it by shifting the focus of life. Let me show you.
When Adam and Eve ate the fruit, their eyes were opened. What does that mean? Up until this point in their lives, they lived naked and unashamed. Yet, the moment they ate from the experientially-based Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they noticed they were both naked and shame filled them. But does this make any sense? Is this just about shame?
They were married to each other. They had been naked all along and married to each other. There was no obvious significance about their nakedness. So we have to ask a different question: Why did they all of a sudden NOTICE they were naked? If they never realized the significance of it before, why did it begin to bother them?
I contend that Adam and Eve, before they ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, were spirit-beings that happened to have physical bodies. Once they had tasted the forbidden knowledge, they changed natures. More accurately, they focused on a different realm. Now, they are physical beings that happen to have a spiritual dimension. This changed everything.
Before eating the forbidden fruit, they focused on things of the spirit realm. Even their vision of God and conversations with God were in that dimension. God is Spirit (John 4:24) we are reminded, and no man has SEEN God at any time (except Jesus…John 1:18). So if they were seeing God, it is in the realm of the spirit. These spirit beings, Adam and Eve spent most of their focal curiosity and fervor on spirit things.
Now, the focus is on the physical realm. They notice the nakedness and they infer meaning to that nakedness. They attach shame to their own bodies–this is the first dysmorphia. They physically hide from God, an action unthinkable if they were still operating from a spirit-realm mindset.
In short, as they realized good and evil by experience, they lost touch with the true reality–God and his spirit realm. Now, they could only see the realm of the body and the realm of the Evil One.
The One Ring does the same thing to its wearer. The promise of immortality and secrecy are alluring. Almost anyone would succumb to it. But not Gandalf. He is offered the Ring by Frodo and he is aghast. He instantly realizes it will give him a lot of power, but it will also make him a slave of the Ring itself. What LOTR tells us is that the more powerful the person, the more deadly their reaction to the ring. Galadriel would not take it, for she feared it would turn her into a Snow Queen, a woman of all-surpassing beauty who would rule with a cold, iron fist.
Tom Bombadil, a being of great joy and curiosity, has no desire for the Ring. Why? He lived his life simply accepting what life brought him. He does his laundry on days that it rains. He collects food from whatever nature would bring him. He is humble, satisfied and content. This is why the Ring has no effect on him.
Sam Gamgee’s reaction to the Ring is also profound. Though he uses the Ring to rescue Frodo from the clutches of orcs, he immediately removes it once he has Frodo out of immediate danger. He gives it back to Frodo, admitting that he is not worthy to have such a thing. He doesn’t like the feel of its power. In this sense, Sam is the model of the man who is pure in heart.
Here is the lesson for us. Gandalf and Galadriel fear that the ring would turn them into gruesome monsters. Tom Bombadil has no need of the ring. Sam Gamgee is afraid of what the ring offers. He would rather walk away from it and let someone else be powerful and secretive. Sam’s life is an open book. These fine people represent the cautious leader, the satisfied simple life and the pure at heart. These are the virtues that distinguish those who can overcome the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
The Internet and rampant media focus have lured us all into wondering how certain things would feel. People who would never have used recreational drugs, would never have had affairs, would never have gambled can do it all so much more easily now. They reason “I have to know what everyone else knows.” That is the essence of the Forbidden Tree. That is the One Ring. That insatiable lust to find out more, to experience more, to know more.
Sam, Bombadil, Galadriel and Gandalf all fought this. You and I can as well. But we must decide that Tree is too dangerous. That ring will cost us too much.