Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
In J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantasy masterpiece The Lord of the Rings, the Dark Lord Sauron is the master of a Ring of Power that he lost, ages before the story began, when a human king named Isildur cut the Ring from his hand. Over the course of many years and happenings, the Ring eventually came to a hobbit-like creature named Smeagol, and it possessed him, and he became Gollum. The Ring of Power consumed Gollum, leaving him as little more than a twisted remnant of his real self; it “wraithed” him, mind, body, and soul.
From Gollum, the Ring passed to a hobbit named Bilbo, and then to Bilbo’s nephew, Frodo. Eventually a wizard named Gandalf discovers that it is the Ring of Power, and Frodo has to flee the Shire on a desperate quest to try and destroy the Ring before the Dark Lord and his Ringwraiths find and recover it. Along the way, he is helped by a Ranger of the North named Aragorn and others who form a Fellowship around their purpose—including Boromir, Captain of Gondor.
If you’re familiar with The Lord of the Rings, you know what the Ringwraiths are already—and you probably also know that to be “wraithed” is a word I have made up. But I think it fits with the process that Tolkien put his characters through again and again in their interactions with the Ring of Power, so hopefully I can be forgiven for a little wordsmithery. A Ringwraith in the story is neither alive nor dead—a creature existing in-between with the sole purpose of serving Sauron and the Ring of Power. They are a picture of the future that awaits Gollum, and any bearer of the Ring, and they are a depiction of what a lust for power does to a person. The desire for power twists good men out of their natural states, and the Ring—both literally and figuratively—illustrates this throughout the story.
Something I’ve always appreciated about Tolkien’s storytelling is how he marries his concepts with his world-building with exceptionally chosen words and actions to paint a complete picture in the reader’s mind. Ringwraiths were once men, but they have become twisted nearly out of recognition and are lost to any redemptive force. But Gollum is still in process, and his “wraithing” is much more obvious—and agonizing—to behold. According to Tolkien biographer Tom Shippey (in his work The Road to Middle-Earth), the word “wraith” comes from an Old English word meaning “to writhe,” and when you think about this in the context of what the Ring of Power does to and in people, the transformative process is much more striking.
Writhing is a twisting motion—to take something that is straight and to twist it out of shape. Shippey points out that “Wreath” and “wrath” come also from the same root word. A ring is twisted like a wreath and wrath is a distorted anger. All of these ideas are tied to the Ring of Power and the lust for power itself that drives people to possess the Ring. We see characters being wrathful when they are denied the Ring, and we see the shape of a wreath both in the ring itself and in the postures characters take during the “wraithing” process. Gollum’s form, hunched over the Ring or over a fish or over a sleeping Frodo, very often takes the circular posture of a wreath. Tolkien, perhaps wanting to drive home the imagery of bent-ness, shows how the servant of the Ring takes the shape of the Ring and becomes bent to the Ring’s cruel will.
This is what a lust for power does to people: it deforms them. It twists them out of their natural shape. In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien demonstrates this for the reader through the imagery and use of the Ring of Power and the effect it has on people. It works so well in the story because it is a truth that is very applicable to life outside the story, as well.
And he was not the only writer of his generation to apply this wraith/writhe concept within his storytelling—or even the only storyteller within his writing group. When friend and fellow Inkling C. S. Lewis wrote his Space Trilogy, he adopted this concept by using the word “bent.” In Out of the Silent Planet, the alien residents of the planet Malacandra—knowing no sin—have no word for “bad.” The closest equivalent the human philologist Ransom (visiting the planet against his will) can come up with in their language to convey “badness” is “bent.” This is also the word Lewis uses throughout the series to describe Satan, who struggles against Maleldil (God) for power.
Although adapted into science fiction form, Lewis’ cosmic bent character and his lust for power should be a story familiar to most readers with even a cursory awareness of the account of Satan’s fall from Heaven. The first sin may have been pride, but it led to a challenge of authority—a desire for power that didn’t belong to him, an absolute corruption. Lewis had clear designs to mark bentness as not only not of God, but of the Devil.
Tolkien and Lewis, who lived through two World Wars (and both were veterans of the first) had ample opportunity to see the ways in which a lust for power corrupts absolutely—twisting and misshaping men beyond their natural form. It is no wonder that this made an indelible mark on both of their fiction-writing. It’s as if they wanted to warn their readers not only what a lust for power looks like in others, but also what it would do in them.
The writhing form is grotesque. But sometimes the effects of the “wraithing” are subtle, seductive even, or at least not immediately obvious. Such is the case with Saruman in The Lord of the Rings.
Saruman’s desire for the Ring twists him out of the shape of the white wizard. He’s supposed to be Saruman the White, the most powerful wizard in Middle Earth and the most learned in the lore of the Ring of Power. He’s someone who should be a force for great good, and when The Lord of the Rings opens, he is Gandalf’s superior. Gandalf and the elves have no reason not to trust Saruman as they’ve always done, and so Gandalf travels to seek his counsel when he fears the Ring of Power may have been found at last. But what Gandalf discovers is that Saruman has fallen prey to the seduction of the thing he’s long studied: the Ring of Power. Saruman believes that if he can possess it, then he will rise to challenge the Dark Lord for supremacy of Middle Earth. And desire for this thing—this object of power—has led Saruman to rename himself Saruman of Many Colors; he fractures himself, as white light bent through a prism.
It’s not as obvious a “wraithing” as what Gollum has gone through, but Saruman also has never possessed the Ring—he’s only allowed the longing for it to consume his thoughts. Saruman’s become twisted in his mind and soul, while his form (except for his many-colored robes) remains largely unchanged. The grotesqueness of his transformation is no less, however, for his lack of physical change.
Tolkien offers his readers a great deal of hope in The Lord of the Rings, despite the writhing and “wraithing” of the characters who fall prey to the allure of the Ring’s power. One way he does this is by presenting characters again and again who are the “wraithed” characters “as they should have been”—by showing us how these characters resisted the promise of absolute power, and thus saved their souls.
Gandalf is one such character. In The Two Towers, when Gandalf, previously the Grey, becomes Gandalf the White, he says he is Saruman “as he should have been.” He may have passed through death at the hands of the Balrog and come back to life in order to achieve this status, but that’s not really why Gandalf is the White Wizard while Saruman diminishes. No—it’s because Gandalf rejected the Ring of Power when Frodo offered it to him. In fact, throughout the story, he rejects and rejects and rejects it again, for Gandalf is powerful enough to take it from Frodo at any moment, should he desire to do so. But Gandalf does not want that power—Gandalf who, if he did take the Ring, could challenge Sauron himself. He chooses a straight path, an unfractured and untwisted path, and thus becomes Gandalf the White.
The Captain of Gondor, Boromir, out of a desire for the Ring of Power, forgets himself as a sworn member of the Fellowship to protect Frodo on his journey to destroy the Ring. He forgets himself also as a good captain of Gondor. The Ring twists him into an oath-breaker, a self-seeker, an attacker of the defenseless. Boromir writhes in his longing for power. And his desire is no less than that of his father, Denethor, who—out of desire for the Ring—would have abandoned his primary function as Steward of Gondor, a kingdom not his own. A man who will not give up a throne that doesn’t belong to him is a grotesque contortion of a person. Denethor’s “wraithing” leads to his death before he even meets the king to whom he owes allegiance.
Neither Boromir nor Denethor needed to have succumbed to the temptation of the Ring, and neither was beyond redemption at their deaths. But Tolkien wanted to show the very great, destructive force the Ring—and thus the desire for power—has on people, even on those who never even possessed it. Then, by way of contrast, he offers us another son of Denethor: Faramir, who is both Boromir and Denethor “as they should have been.” Just as Gandalf is Saruman as he should have been, Faramir is both the captain Boromir should have been and steward Denethor should have been.
Faramir’s redemptive qualities are many, but his chief character lies in his utter rejection of the Ring of Power. When Faramir and his men apprehend Frodo in Ithilien (near the border of Mordor), Faramir has a difficult choice to make: Does he take Frodo to his father, Denethor, in the city of Minas Tirith? Or does he allow Frodo to walk free in enemy lands? Faramir is charged with bringing all apprehended prisoners to the city, and he knows that above all else, Denethor desires the Ring of Power. So when he learns that Frodo is carrying that very thing, Faramir finds within his grasp the means to not only curry favor with his father, but save his beloved city and become great and powerful himself. All the dreams of his brother, Boromir, and his father are his to take—Frodo is at his mercy.
But Faramir is not his brother, or his father. (And here is where I take a brief aside and beg you to please read the books if you have only seen the movies, because Peter Jackson utterly destroyed Faramir’s character in the movie.) Faramir understands what the Ring of Power will do to him and to his city if he were to take it from Frodo—if he were to try and use it, even with the best of intentions. He tells Frodo: “I would not take this thing, if it lay by the highway. Not were Minas Tirith falling in ruin and I alone could save her, so, using the weapon of the Dark Lord for her good and my glory. No, I do not wish for such triumphs…” Faramir understands that the lust for power is an evil thing, and that nothing about that lust can ultimately come to good purpose.
Faramir, in rejecting the power of the Ring, also understands his true purpose as Steward of Gondor—a role he steps into upon his father’s death. He is willing to step aside for Aragorn (who is the rightful King of Gondor) and serve him. Faramir demonstrates that to hold power is not the same thing as to love it, to desire it, or to cling to it. His is a servant rule, a stewardship that sets straight what was wraithed by his father and brother.
And Faramir’s king—the king of The Return of the King—is Aragorn, who is himself another example of someone “as he should have been.” Tolkien’s “unwraithing” continues when Aragorn returns from a long exile of his ancestors in the north to take his throne in Gondor. He is the heir of the ancient king Isildur, the person who cut the Ring from Sauron’s hand. But instead of destroying the Ring then and there, as he could have done, Isildur kept the Ring of Power for his own, and Sauron was allowed to live on—his essence tied to the Ring. Thus Isildur’s desire for power doomed all of Middle Earth to a second rise of the Dark Lord and a continuation of evil in the land. As he became twisted, all the land twisted with him.
But Aragorn, Isildur’s descendant, when he found within his grasp a vulnerable hobbit bearing the Ring of Power, never took the Ring from Frodo. He could have, at any moment from the Shire to the Falls of Rauros. Aragorn could have taken the Ring and claimed it justly as an heirloom of his house (as Isildur had done)—he could have taken it and wielded it with strength against Sauron and fought back the darkness to establish a new Kingdom of Gondor.
But it would have been a victory won with a tool of evil, and the Ring would have ultimately twisted him and betrayed him and turned all his good deeds to ruin. As it did with his ancestor. Even knowing it may mean defeat for the city and the people he loves—and knowing that darkness may wash over all of Middle Earth if Frodo fails—Aragorn rejects the Ring of Power and becomes Isildur as Isildur should have been.
It runs against human nature to reject an advantage once we have it, but that’s what Tolkien’s heroes do again and again. It seems natural to long to wield power and to have great authority, but Tolkien uses a Ring and a concept—wraithing—to warn us against the terrible, corrupting force of absolute power. Tolkien and Lewis both did not write their stories in a void—they wrote them clear-eyed after long and terrible world conflicts. So, too, should we consume them. It is a disconcerting thing to watch people become wraiths of their former selves out of a desire for or proximity to power. It is, in fact, a grotesque thing. We become like that which we love, as Gollum became more like his “precious” and Saruman and Boromir and Denethor became twisted in their desire to possess it. That which we love should perplex those who lust for power as surely as Sauron could never conceive that a hobbit would walk his Ring into his fiery mountain and throw it away. “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong…”
Despite all the very great people in The Lord of the Rings—all the Aragorns and Faramirs and Gandalfs and so many more—Tolkien subverts the love of power and the love of the Ring of Power even more by making the story ultimately about hobbits. For not only do Frodo and Sam make the terrible trek into Mordor to destroy the Ring, but Gollum also has a character who is “as he should have been.” It’s Bilbo. Bilbo, who didn’t go on the journey at all, but who stayed in Rivendell. Bilbo is Gollum as he should have been because Bilbo took the Ring from Gollum in the cave and possessed it for many years, growing corrupted by it—but, as Gandalf tells Frodo, he gave up the Ring on his own, in the end. The desire for power wraiths, but the rejection of power restores.