The Corruption of the Lord of the Rings

Sent in for the Tenth Anniversary of the Valar Guild October 2007

Tolkien Encyclopedia > Papers


Tolkien's Art of Corruption
The Corruption of the Nazgul
The Corruption of Saruman and Denethor
The Men of the West
The Corruption of the Orcs


      The Lord of the Rings is ultimately a tale of good. It is a tale of heroic deeds and triumph over evil. Many characters are the epitomes of goodness and purity: Aragorn, Sam, Faramir. Certainly the quest could not have been achieved without these shining examples. Sauron would have overrun Middle-Earth were he opposed only by the neutral majority of mankind. These people are not, however, exclusively important to victory.

      The ending of The Lord of the Rings would have been much less happy if not for the bountiful presence of corruption. Boromir’s fall, for example, fatefully altered the Fellowship’s path. Merry and Pippin might never have warned Treebeard about the treason of Isengard if not for the reverse corruption of the Orcs. The One Ring itself would not have been destroyed if not for corruption in the form of Gollum.

      Corruption is of course not a true force for good. But as Tolkien himself wrote, “Oft evil will shall evil mar” (The Two Towers 200). Orcs are poster children for corruption, and plague the Fellowship throughout the novels. If Saruman had not been corrupted in the first place, the war might have gone much easier for the Free Peoples. And if the hearts of men were not so easily tainted, the Ringwraiths might never have been brought into being.

      Despite being a tale of the acts of good, it is corruption that so often turns the plot. It is corruption that allows the enemies plans to be known, and it is corruption that provides the means to overcome those plans. But corruption is not a simple thing.


Tolkien’s Art of Corruption

      Corruption does not happen in a vacuum. Quite often, certain criteria must be met in order for a character in The Lord of the Rings to be altered for the worse. In most cases, two things are required for corruption: one, a predisposition towards not necessarily evil, but less than noble deeds; and two, an object of some power and influence over the user. Note that the three volumes of the Lord of the Rings are the only major concern of this essay; The Silmarillion and other works present more complexities. Only in the case of the orcs is this combination not seen in a major theme.

      The object is pretty straightforward. It has to be something of power, such as a Palantir, a Silmaril, or a Ring. Quite possibly, the object itself only serves as a focus and does not in itself possess the ability to corrupt. Often a powerful will is projected through the object; it is Sauron’s in the case of both the Rings and the Palantiri.

      A predisposition can be more complicated. It can run the gamut from simple greed to a desire to protect one’s people by any means necessary. While the latter could be seen as a noble aim, with the lure of a Great Ring it quickly turns to a dangerous lust for power. Both Gandalf and Galadriel struggle with temptation to take the One Ring, because they desire the power to protect Middle-Earth. They know the Ring will grant that power, but they also know that they will not be content to use it for good because it contains the will of Sauron.

The Corruption of the Nazgul

      The Nazgul represent the most complete corruption of mankind. Plus, they fit the theory perfectly. Sauron gave nine rings of power to men. The Elves and Dwarves proved too strong-willed and clever for Sauron to defile, but the nine men “one by one … according to … the good or evil of their wills … they fell under the thralldom of … the One” (Silmarillion 289). So they each had a character trait that led to them being ensnared by their ring.

      Besides being a perfect example of Tolkien’s model of corruption, the Nazgul are fascinating in another respect. They are instruments of corruption themselves. On Weathertop, the Witch-King stabs Frodo with a Morgul knife (FOTR 208). This knife is especially remarkable, in that is it probably the most direct method of subversion in the Lord of the Rings. As Gandalf says to Frodo, “They tried to pierce your heart … If they had succeeded… You would have become a wraith under the dominion of the Dark Lord” (FOTR 234). Only the willpower of Frodo stopped the blade splinter from reaching his heart. The character trait in this case necessary for corruption is, simply, physical weakness. The One Ring takes years to work its magic, but this knife works much quicker. Frodo resisted for 17 days, and if Elrond had not been present he wouldn’t have made it to 18 (FOTR 234). That’s efficiency. 

The Corruption of Saruman and Denethor

      Rings are not the only things that can entrap the unwary. Some of the most potent corruptors are the Palantiri. Wizards are known for their strong wills, and yet one of the most powerful was taken in by a Palantir. Saruman of Many Colors desired Orthanc for one important reason: it contained one of the Seeing Stones. Unfortunately, “it was his downfall” as Gandalf says (The Two Towers 203). Sauron, using the power of the Stone of Minas Ithil, had already turned the other Stones to his will. Saruman long sought lore of the Rings of Power, and pried into the Enemy’s arts (Silmarillion 301). His desire for knowledge led to his corruption.

      One other Seeing Stone has been accounted for: the Stone of Minas Anor. This one, too, was controlled by Sauron. We learn that Denethor, steward of Gondor, had used the Palantir to divine knowledge of the Enemy’s movements only just before the steward burns himself alive. Even so, Gandalf explains, “he was too great to be subdued to the will of the Dark Power” (The Return of the King 132). Denethor’s downfall seems very drawn out, and came about much like an addiction to some horrible drug. Gandalf surmises that “he looked in the Stone and was deceived: far too often, I guess” (The Return of the King 132). Initially drawn to the Stone to obtain knowledge, Denethor was eventually reduced to a junkie needing a fix.  

The Men of the West

      In The Lord of the Rings, three Men come into close contact with the Ring. These are Aragorn, Boromir, and Faramir. Each responds to the inevitable temptation in a different way, not all equally successful. But they all have one thing in common: they help to refute the notion that Men are easily and irreversibly corrupted.

      Aragorn handles the temptation with the most grace. It is in doubt whether he is ever even tempted by the Ring at all. He journeys with Frodo all the way from Bree to Rivendell and the only time his restraint is questioned is at their first meeting. He tells the Hobbits, “If I was after the Ring, I could have it – NOW!” (FOTR 183). But he does not take it. This is a very vulnerable situation for the Hobbits, and if ever there was a perfect time to take the Ring by force, that was it. In Rivendell, Frodo all but offers the Ring to Aragorn, saying “Then it belongs to you, and not to me at all!” (FOTR 260). Again Aragorn refuses it, apparently without any internal struggle whatsoever. After that there is no other mention of Aragorn and the Ring together.

      Why is Aragorn apparently so unaffected by the Ring? Wisdom? Gandalf and Galadriel are two of the wisest characters in the story, and both are tempted sorely by the Ring. Aragorn even seems to have a power over objects. The Palantir of Orthanc he bends to will against the power of Sauron. The Ring is also Sauron’s, and Aragorn has some small claim on it, too. Isildur took it as weregild, so it could be seen as owed to him and his house, including Aragorn. Of course, Sauron would never suffer anyone else to have a legitimate claim on the Ring, so Aragorn likely would not have been successful in turning it to his will. Perhaps it is this tremendous willpower that lets him resist the Ring. Not because of any absence of character flaw does Aragorn ignore the Ring’s influence, but because of his ability to hold any flaws in check.

      Boromir fares less well. It is obvious that Boromir desires the Ring right from the start, at the Council of Elrond. He says “Why should we not think that the Great Ring has come into our hands to serve us in the very hour of need? … Let the Ring be your weapon, if it has such power as you say! Take it and go forth to victory!” (FOTR 280-1). Later on he more openly covets the Ring, such as when he suspiciously steers near Frodo’s boat on the river Anduin (FOTR 398). When he does finally try to take the Ring, the reason he gives is, “True-hearted Men, they will not be corrupted. We of Minas Tirith have been staunch through long years of trial. We do not desire the power of wizard-lords, only strength to defend ourselves” (FOTR 414). Quite likely this is true. Boromir only wants the Ring in order to save his people. This desire is so strong in him, however, that he will do anything to attain it. Even, if necessary, kill an innocent little Hobbit and use a Ring made for evil. That is his damning trait.

      But Boromir, despite his failings, is not a lost cause. He repents almost instantly when Frodo flees from him, saying “A madness took me, but it has passed” (FOTR 416). This also is likely an honest declaration. Boromir knows Frodo is going to Mordor, and needs a boat to cross the river, but he does not pursue the Hobbit any farther. Instead he returns to camp shamed, and then later dies while protecting Merry and Pippin from the Uruk-Hai. As his last breath, he confesses to Aragorn “I tried to take the Ring from Frodo. I am sorry. I have paid” (The Two Towers 16). The Nazgul never confess their crimes.

      Boromir’s brother Faramir has a better experience, more akin to that of Aragorn. He doesn’t have much trouble resisting the Ring’s pull. In his own words, he “would not take this thing, if it lay by the highway” (The Two Towers 280). Perhaps by guessing the manner of the downfall of Boromir, he knows what would happen if he gave in. Fear of death is probably greater than desire for power, at least in Faramir. But Faramir is not a man given to listening only to his fears.

      Faramir is an eminently trustworthy person. This is shown well in something he says about Boromir: “he put himself forward, as being the older and the hardier (both true)” (The Two Towers 280). We readers can see that Faramir turns out to be the hardiest, in spirit at least, but his honesty in this line reveals his sterling character. Therefore, we can believe Faramir when he gives his reasons for not wanting the Ring. He tells us: “I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend” (The Two Towers 280). For the purpose of defense, the Ring is not as helpful a tool as it is on attack. Maybe, then, the Ring doesn’t even want to tempt Faramir.

The Corruption of the Orcs

      Ah, the exception to the oh-so-beautiful rule. Orcs were made by Morgoth, who twisted the race of Elves (Silmarillion 50). Therefore, the Orcs reproduce like Elves do, and also possess great longevity (Silmarillion 50). But no object was utilized in this corruption. Also, any readily available taint present in the Elves which became the first Orcs is highly questionable. Morgoth, as was his wont, spread lies and rumors among the Elves in order to make them turn away from the Valar (Silmarillion 50). The Elves were deceived and captured by Morgoth, then corrupted by force. This type of corruption can almost be considered a second major theory of that process, and the chief method of such employed by Morgoth.

      The Orcs enjoyed a second transformation in the course of the Lord of the Rings, and it was even more at odds with Tolkien’s usual theme. Saruman, as was guessed at by Treebeard, “blended the races of Orcs and Men” (The Two Towers 77). Tolkien confirms this in one of his essays, saying “Saruman … committed … his wickedest deed: the interbreeding of Men and Orcs” (Morgoth’s Ring ?). Why? When Orcs were created from Elves, they became a dark reflection of that elder race. They became highly sensitive to light, and that became a great weakness in war with other races. Saruman needed a race of Orcs that were numerous and at the same time able to withstand sunlight. So, he created the Uruk-Hai.

      By cross-breeding orcs with humans, Saruman effectively reverse corrupted them. In addition to abiding sunlight, these Uruk-Hai also seem better able to follow orders and carry out those orders than do the orcs of the Misty Mountains or even of Mordor. For instance, when the Orcs are escorting Merry and Pippin to Isengard, the Orcs from Isengard send the other orc tribes running ahead, but before long catch up to both (The Two Towers 55). It seems the infusion of man-blood made the Uruk-hai stronger in more ways than one. Unfortunately, this proved to be Saruman’s undoing. In creating a race of orcs that could travel nonstop, he makes it possible for Merry and Pippin to arrive in Fangorn, meet Treebeard, and cause the Ents to march on Isengard before Saruman can defeat the men of Rohan. These reverse corrupted orcs unwittingly committed an act helpful to the cause of good.


      Corruption is a vital aspect of The Lord of the Rings. Without it, the story would not have been able to move forward, at least not to the familiar resolution. Also, corruption was used to show the quality of characters, by the way they did or did not resist their temptations. Tolkien was very clever in his use of corruption, and seems to have developed something of a formula for its effectiveness. A powerful artifact and a powerful predisposition to use it for selfish purposes is almost exclusively necessary for one to be consumed. Without one or the other, the corruption cannot occur.

Reference: Lord of the Rings. Page numbers given in the text are for the Houghton-Mifflin 1993 edition.