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                    From the beginning, the One Ring is surrounded by mystery both in terms of narrative and metaphysical structure. As to its central place in the plot, much is revealed at the Council of Elrond where the many threads of its history are connected for the first time. The metaphysical problem of the Ring, in short, is whether it operates on a purely mental level, as any other strong temptation or whether it constitutes an actual, autonomous, evil power capable of influencing the physical world. Or, as is now plain, does it represent a Boethian or a Manichean concept of evil? Physical proximity seems to enable the Ring to exert its influence. It clearly has a magnetic power over the mind, at least partially subconscious: it projects the promise of whatever the person in question desires most. Gandalf is often described as one of the Wise in Middle-earth. A full study of Tolkien's treatment of the concept of wisdom would easily constitute a whole essay in itself, for it  subsumes many qualities central to his worldview. In relation to the Ring, however, it will suffice to list the moral depth, the psychological insight, the discerning eye and, not least, the empathy which are shared by the most powerful agents of good. But above all these, one could place their superior self-awareness: what makes Elrond, Galadriel and Gandalf fear the Ring so much is their unreserved recognition of their own limitation faced with its corruptive power. As the ancient Socratic dictum "know thyself" implies, true understanding of others begins with true understanding of self. Gandalf displays a remarkable awareness of his own abilities - which are great, but ultimately limited58 . He is a strong leader, but like everyone else, he has doubts and worries. He has a keen intellect and great power, but also the humility to question both. As a measure of Gandalf's insight, we may take his reaction when offered the Ring by Frodo:
"'No!', cried Gandalf, springing to his feet. 'With that power I should have
power too great and terrible. And over me the Ring should gain power still
greater and more deadly.' His eyes flashed and his face was lit as by a fire
within. '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 wish to wield it would
be too great for my strength.'"59   (my emphasis)
                    It is one thing to know the great power of the Ring, but quite another to anticipate the full force of its assault and rationally analyse the nature of its subconscious attraction. Significantly, this attraction clearly adapts to each individual in question. However, by articulating and thereby externalising the Ring's mental assault, he seems also to be exorcising its powers. Another character who is counted among the Wise is the Lady Galadriel60 . For many long years, Galadriel has been conscious of the gravity of the choice she must make if the Ruling Ring should come within her reach. When Frodo, encouraged by her great beauty and wisdom, offers her his burden, she faces her own ultimate test similar to Gandalf's:
'I do not deny that my heart has greatly desired to ask what you offer. …
And now at last it comes. You will give me the Ring freely! In place of a
Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful
and terrible as the Morning and the Night! … Dreadful as the Storm and the
Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me
and despair!'61 
                    Yet Galadriel's test is the more dramatic one. Where Gandalf shirks without hesitation from his own temptation, the elf-lady goes further, for a moment indulging the full force of it, verbalising "the way of the Ring to her heart". Continuing from where the quote left off, her struggle is made manifest:
She lifted up her hand and from the ring that she wore there issued a
great light that illuminated her alone and left all else dark. She stood
before Frodo seeming now tall beyond measurement, and beautiful
beyond enduring, terrible and worshipful. Then she let her hand fall,
and the light faded and suddenly she laughed again, and lo! She was
shrunken: a slender elf-woman, clad in simple white, whose gentle
voice was soft and sad. 'I pass the test', she said. 'I will diminish, and
go into the West, and remain Galadriel.'
                    Their rejection of the Ring is based on the understated acknowledgement that whatever their intentions and individual strength of character, possession of its power would devour their good motives and turn desire for good into desire to dominate and subordinate other wills: the very seeds of corruption, according to Tolkien's view. Power, as epitomised by the Ring, is the means to make one's will more quickly effective and realise one's deepest desires to shape the world according to one's own purposes. Exposure to unlimited power and the awakening of addiction in the human psyche is a connection also made by the 18th century thinker Edmund Burke (well ahead of his time): "Those who have been once intoxicated with power … can never willingly abandon it". This philosophy is essentially what Tolkien makes manifest in the Ring; one may reject the Ring with free will and strength of character, but exposure to its power will bind anyone with the chains of addiction. Another recurring consequence of exposure to the Ring is the awakening of distrust: with possession comes the gnawing fear of loss, eventually leading to  the paranoia and social displacement embodied (in the extreme) by Sméagol/Gollum.
                    Metaphysically speaking, the gravest danger of the Ring is its ability to consume the independent mind of the wearer, and eventually fuse its own destructive essence with his or her being. What is perhaps the One Ring's scariest quality is the inexorable erosion of free will which increases with direct exposure and accelerates with each use. In conclusion, the Ring embodies Tolkien's sophisticated balance of Boethian and Manichean traits. Its very shape – O – symbolises nothingness and implies a view of evil as absence. Conversely, the Ring appears to have a will of its own, it is referred to as "choosing to leave" Isildur and Gollum, both former Ringbearers, and as "wanting to be found"; it makes its wearers appear larger, more masterful and commanding to their surroundings and its influence supersedes normal temptation.
                    The thoughts of temptation described in characters affected by its pull invariably revolve around images of themselves as lords and masters over others: "Sméagol the Great", "Queen Galadriel, beautiful and terrible", "Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age". Yet, in delving even deeper into the nature of the Ruling Ring, the greatest and most sobering irony of the book emerges. Tolkien gives the subtle theme of reversal one final twist, responding at the same time to the countless horrors committed in the power struggles of the 20th century. For ultimately, there can be no Lord of the Rings - its power depends on projecting that illusion, but the fact remains that any wearer must lose himself entirely to the Ring. For 500 years of unnatural longevity, its keeper Gollum was enslaved and consumed by it. Before him, Isildur was lured to his death when it slipped off his finger in the river Anduin. Even though Gandalf, Elrond and Galadriel, the greatest agents of good in Middle-earth, could have used its power to overthrow Sauron, they too would eventually have succumbed to its evil. Even Sauron, its creator and only true wielder, is irrevocably tied up with his creation, and ruled by its fate. One Ring to Rule them all and in the darkness bind them. Since the creation of the Ring required his very essence, his own life-force, so it follows that by its destruction, he is not only defeated, but utterly annihilated: mastered by the Ring's (non-)existence. The same bond clearly seals Gollum's fate. And one can speculate whether even Frodo, whose health and spirit never recover, who gradually fades and recedes from this world even after the Ring's destruction, had also by his long exposure become "bound" to its fate. The common features here reveal the wearers of the Ring, actual or potential, as mentally subordinate to its influence. Given time, its corruptive effects are shown to inevitably erase free will and thereby the very nature of individuality and selfhood. Ironically, in trading mastery of oneself for naked obsession with the Precious, the only true Lord becomes the Ring itself.

  58The use of power unrestrained and untempered is a trait of evil in Middle-earth, quite distinct from the limited power displayed by representatives of good; it is not Gandalf's place to upset the balance of the world as Sauron has through domination and force, but to counsel and inspire the free peoples in their resistance. Aptly, Gandalf is the bearer of the Elven Ring Narya, the ruby Ring of Fire, to kindle the hearts of men.  back
  59Tolkien, LotR, p. 75  back
  60Who, incidentally, repeats Gandalf's idea of power as potentially "too great and terrible". As observed earlier, this particular image of power is significant as a tenet of modern experience.  back
  61Both this and the following are found in: ibid., p. 385  back

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