The Essence of the One Ring

If you haven't read J.R.R. Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings, shame on you! It's one of the seminal works of English literature of the 20th century, if only for his perfection of the reverse quest as a modern take on epic. This piece won't make much sense unless you've read the book. Go out and read it. I'll wait.

A question came into sharp focus for me when I re-read the Lord of the Rings trilogy. (OK, I'll be honest -- in preparation for Peter Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring (2002).) We can agree that the One Ring is fraught with risk and power, aweful and terrible in their classical sense. But why? What does it do? What is, after all, the essence of the Ring?
When answering, we must remember that Tolkien's world is a magical one -- not in the Harry Potter, childrens' sense of magic, but in the sense of the old magic: dark, primal, terrifying, and real. There is an essential unity between the physical and the psychological/spiritual worlds. Nature itself is a screen upon which the inner world of the characters is projected. The physical world reflects the moral state of the world. The Shire is settled and comfortable. Mordor is literally life-taking, fouler at every step. Lothlorien is etheral and heartbreakingly transcendant. In a way not available to more realistic writing, Tolkien wove the themes of the book into the corporeal setting itself. The physical world expresses the hidden world.
In such a world, what one is cannot be separated from what one does. Sauron cannot be seen, for his way is the unseen strategem. Gandalf returns blindingly white because he has been purified in death. The Ring weighs on Frodo, becoming literally heavier with every step toward its seat of power. And what is the One Ring? What does it do? For that will express its essence. And despite the complexity of Tolkien's symbolism, the depth of his tapestry, the role of the One Ring, its essence, can be captured in just one word.
Surprisngly, that word is not "dominion". It can be argued, indeed, has been argued, that the role and power of the One Ring was exactly that: to give its wearer dominion, over the other Rings of Power, over the Elves, over Middle-Earth itself. Every time the Ring tempts a character, it offers them visions of power. Galadriel even tells Frodo that he could never weild the Ring effectively unless he trained himself to the domination of others. Of course power and dominion are the essence of the Ring, aren't they?
Power is what the One Ring offers. It is not what the One Ring is. I do not use the word "tempt" lightly, for the Ring is clearly an object of temptation, a touchstone of desire, with very nearly a will of its own. It sings to the characters, whispering in the ears of all nearby about the many wondrous things it can make possible. It offers every important character a chance to remake the world. All that is required is that he or she seize the Ring, make it his/her own, break the alliance against it. And therein lies the essence of the Ring, the one word of power that names and defines it:
The essence of the One Ruling Ring is to betray. At every turn, to everyone involved, it offers only betrayal and loss. The Ring betrays Isildur by slipping off his finger in his moment of need, leaving him vulnerable to -- of all things -- the arrow of a lowly archer. After his five hundred years of stewardship, Gollum is betrayed by the Ring, when it positions itself to be discovered by Bilbo. For the Ring, Bilbo betrays himself, working against his declared purpose by slipping the Ring into his pocket, until caught by Gandalf. Boromir's fall is too obvious to require much explication. At the start of it all, the Ring obviously betrays Sauron, for how else would any mortal Man find the power to strike down the Dark Lord in his moment of glory? And at the end, after causing Frodo to betray his quest, the Ring in rapid succession betrays the hobbit, then Gollum, and finally even itself, driving demented Smeagol to drag it to its own destruction.
At every turn, in every way, the Ring revolves around betrayal.
How could it be otherwise? For the Ring is forged in betrayal, for the purpose of betrayal, by a Power with only betrayal in his heart. Sauron taught the Elves the secret of making Rings of Power and aided them in making the Seven and the Nine, amid many other lesser rings. He then created the One Ruling Ring to seize dominion over the others. At all times he kept his heart clouded from their sight, revealing his designs only when the One Ring was completed.
In Middle-Earth, the physical exists to highlight the sublte. The Ring was conceived in betrayal, forged in treachery. Its history could not be other than an unending succession of deceipt, betrayal, and treachery. In the very manner of his craft, Sauron necessarily constructs his downfall. The Ring must betray everyone -- Sauron included, itself included -- because that, in the final analysis, is its nature. It cannot be otherwise.

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