There has never been a consensus on the allegorical meaning of The Lord of the Rings. J.R.R. Tolkien himself said the trilogy had no allegorical or topical meaning. And using the strict definition of “allegory,” where each part of the story acts as a definite symbol for something else, this is true.
Nevertheless, LOTR contains one of the greatest Christian allegories of modern literature. Its mythology and themes should be immediately familiar to any Christian, but resonate particularly with members of the restored Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
He was speaking of The Hobbit, but I believe Elder Uchtdorf’s words apply to LOTR as well: “Perhaps one of the reasons this story resonates with so many is because it is our story too.”
The Lord of the Rings definitely is “our” story, or the story of our world. It begins with the dark lord Sauron, once a god, cast out of the realm of the deities and into Middle-earth. Sauron works tirelessly to enslave the world. He even ends up deceiving some of the most elite.
Sauron’s trick to enslave mankind was to give its various races magical rings. These rings were called the rings of power. What magic did these rings hold? This question is never fully answered; the story simply says that they fill their wearers with some kind of immeasurable or unstoppable power.
In time most of these rings were lost, but the One Ring is eventually recovered. And the One Ring is the most powerful ring of them all. It grants its wearer much power. But what the wearer never realizes is that using the ring secretly gives Sauron, a spirit with no physical body, more power.
Like the object itself, this One Ring of power has proven to be an elusive symbol. I’ve read many speculations on the ring’s symbolic meaning. As an object that grants its wearer power, but at a tremendous (and sometimes hidden) cost, some have compared it to society’s embrace of technological advancements. Others have compared the ring to the history-altering–and at times disastrous–industrial revolution. Still others have wondered whether it symbolizes the invention of super weapons, or atomic doomsday devices.
While such interpretations have merit, they fail to grasp that the One Ring is a symbol much more basic, effective, and universal. Because it is not a symbol of any one object or technology. The One Ring is an allegory for the most powerful force in the mortal universe: human agency.
Hugh Nibley wrote (paraphrasing Pierre Teilhard de Chardin): “Man is the most refined being there is. He is much more complicated than a star, even a giant star, or a star system, or a galaxy.”
Almost nothing in the universe has agency, or the freedom to choose. The untold trillions of atoms, minerals, rocks, stars, and gasses–they are only ever acted upon by universal forces, always reacting predictably according to the laws of physics.
Even most living things, such as plants and, to a degree, animals, are the same. They are acted upon, controlled by their own appetites and needs. What sets human beings apart–their crowning glory and the source of all their power–is their agency.
Christians, and especially Latter-day Saints, believe that the freedom to choose is God’s greatest gift to mankind. Acting, and not being acted upon, is what makes humans like the divine. Likewise, human agency is also the ultimate source of all of mankind’s pain and suffering. Like Sauron, Lucifer knew that the power of agency–the power that enables us to choose the right, and to follow Jesus Christ–would also enable him to tempt people down the dark path of their own damnation.
In The Lord of the Rings (as in the pre-mortal world), a council is held to discuss how to deal with the power of the One Ring (or the power of agency). All the races of the world are present at this council. They conclude that to overcome the evil of Sauron, the ring must not be used. In fact, it must be completely destroyed–thrown back into the fiery mountain from where it was forged.
In other words, those present realized that the only way for man to triumph over evil and death is to sacrifice his own agency. In real life this sacrifice is accomplished when a man gives his will completely to the will of God, who in turn saves him.
Like God asking Abraham to sacrifice the very son He gave him, giving one’s will over to God is declaring: “You’ve given me the power to choose, Lord, and with that power I will go and do what you command.”
President Ezra Taft Benson explained it as a matter of pride: “Pride is essentially competitive in nature. We pit our will against God’s. When we direct our pride toward God, it is in the spirit of ‘my will and not thine be done.’ . . . Our will in competition to God’s will allows desires, appetites, and passions to go unbridled. The proud cannot accept the authority of God giving direction to their lives.”
Aragorn, the exiled king who awaits a return to his rightful throne, explains that despite its tantalizing power, the One Ring’s power is deceptive. “You cannot wield it. None of us can.” One’s own will always falls short of the will of the Lord.
The Savior, our perfect example, taught: “I can of mine own self do nothing: as I hear, I judge: and my judgment is just; because I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me.” Time and time again, Christ explains that his agency only exists to follow the will of his father.
In The Lord of the Rings, destroying the One Ring is the only plan that will work because it is the last thing Sauron would ever expect the people to do. After all, the ring is the most powerful object in the world–how could anyone not use it for their own personal gain?
Similarly, giving our agency to God is exactly what Satan fears most. When we use our agency to do God’s will, we take all power away from the adversary.
Giving up one’s will is not an easy task. As Gimli strikes the ring with his axe, his weapon shatters. It is determined that the ring must be returned to the fires of Mount Doom. This requires a long journey, beset by enemies, monsters, and temptation. There is no quick fix.
The fellowship’s quest is symbolic of all of the struggles believers face in mortality. It has its beginning in a council long ago, and it will have an ending. All the choices made therein have eternal implications.
Throughout life’s journey there is evil all around us and beings that want to do us harm. But we also have friends and people who support us along the way. The Lord provides us heavenly guides to follow, because sacrificing our agency to do God’s will is not an easy thing to do, and we will be tempted constantly to turn back to our old ways. In fact, not using the ring is the greatest challenge Frodo and the fellowship face in their quest.
This is because using one’s agency to follow one’s will seems like the most natural path to take at all times. But the scriptures teach that the path of the self of is the path of “captivity and death.”
Gollum/Smeagol illustrates this path of darkness. Early in life, he commits a serious sin to obtain the One Ring. He then seeks to escape judgment by hiding in a cave. He continues using the ring, which grants him unnaturally long life. Smeagol believes the ring (or the power of agency) makes him free, and calls it his “precious.” He clings to this power so desperately that he actually loses himself, changing into Gollum.
Frodo, by sacrificing his will and his life, finds it in the end. His reward is eternal life, as he is allowed to join his friends in the Undying Lands and to exercise the power of agency forever.
Aragorn, the exiled king, eventually claims his rightful throne and redeems the imprisoned dead (the ghosts who dwell under the mountain). Peace is ushered in when all of the races of Middle-earth stop fighting amongst themselves and decide to work together in sacrificing the ring.
The importance of this story was not lost on Elder Neal A. Maxwell, who quoted LOTR in a conference talk in 1998. Note the theme of the power of agency:
“It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule” (The Return of the King, 190).
I doubt I’m the first to understand the allegory of the ring, but from all I’ve seen and read about LOTR I don’t think mine is a widespread reading. And I hope that this will change, especially among members of the church.
There is confusion among some members as to whether stories with magic or monsters are appropriate for followers of Christ. The answer is that of course they are appropriate, as we live in a world of very real evil and very real miracles.
In the words of Haldir the elf: “The world is indeed full of peril and in it there are many dark places. But still there is much that is fair. And though in all lands, love is now mingled with grief, it still grows, perhaps, all the greater.”
It is because of its power that The Lord of the Rings will continue to be diluted and attacked by the devil (i.e. Amazon, HBO, Disney+, etc.) The world loves to suggest that adhering to God’s commandments equals enslavement. The prophet Mormon observed: “Behold, they do not desire that the Lord their God, who hath created them, should rule and reign over them; notwithstanding his great goodness and his mercy towards them, they do set at naught his counsels, and they will not that he should be their guide.” True followers of Christ know better. The allegory of the ring illustrates that although the path is treacherous, the sacrifice of one’s will is the only way to achieve ultimate and eternal freedom.
- “Hope through the Atonement of Jesus Christ” -Elder Neal A. Maxwell, October 1998
- “Our Father’s Glorious Plan” -Elder Weatherford T. Clayton, April 2017
- “The Atonement: Our Greatest Hope” -President James E. Faust, October 2001
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