Addiction to power in The Lord of the Rings

The theme of addiction to power in The Lord of the Rings is central, as the Ring, made by the Dark Lord Sauron to enable him to take over the whole of Middle-earth, progressively corrupts the mind of its owner to use the Ring for evil.

The corrupting power of the Ring has been compared to the Ring of Gyges in Plato's Republic, which gave the power of invisibility and so tempted its owner, but there is no evidence that Tolkien modelled The Lord of the Rings on that story. Scholars such as Tom Shippey consider the theme to be modern, since in earlier times, power was considered to reveal character, not to alter it, recalling Lord Acton's 1887 statement that "power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely".[1]

In the narrativeEdit

Artist's representation of the Ring

The One Ring was forged by the Dark Lord Sauron in the fires of Mount Doom during the Second Age to gain dominion over the free peoples of Middle-earth.[T 1] He intended it to control those who wore any of the other Rings of Power. Since they were powerful, he had to put much of his own power as a Maia into the Ring to achieve this.[T 2]

When Sméagol saw the Ring that his friend Déagol had found in the River Anduin, he killed Déagol to get it, and used the Ring's power of invisibility:[T 1]

to find out secrets, and he put his knowledge to crooked and malicious uses. He became sharp-eyed and keen-eared for all that was hurtful. The ring had given him power according to his stature. ... he became very unpopular and ... they called him Gollum.[T 1]

The wizard Gandalf explains that Gollum was wholly corrupted by and addicted to the Ring:[T 1]

He hated it and loved it, as he hated and loved himself. He could not get rid of it. He had no will left in the matter.[T 1]

The Ring and powerEdit

The Ring's effectsEdit

A major theme is the corrupting influence of the One Ring through the power it offers, especially to those already powerful.[2] Tom Shippey notes Gandalf's statements about the power and influence of the One Ring, and the corrupting influence it has on its bearers. Gandalf rejects the Ring for this reason when Frodo offers it to him; this view of the Ring is reinforced as Elrond, Galadriel, Aragorn and Faramir in their turn also reject it, fearing that it will overpower them as well. Inversely, the hobbits' complacency and lack of ambition makes them less susceptible to the Ring's promises of power, as in Frodo and Sam, who are able to handle the Ring for extended periods of time. Hobbits are not totally immune to the Ring's effects, however, as can be seen in the changes it works in Frodo, Bilbo and Gollum.[3] On the other hand, Boromir becomes murderously obsessed with the Ring, but never possesses it, while Sméagol kills his kin Déagol, the first Ring bearer after Isildur, to obtain the Ring.[4]

"Power corrupts"Edit

Lord Acton famously stated "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely", an idea embodied in the addictive power of the One Ring.[1]

The corrupting effect of power is, according to Shippey, a modern theme, since in earlier times, power was considered to "reveal character", not alter it. Shippey quotes Lord Acton's 1887 statement:

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men[1]

Shippey points out authors contemporary with Tolkien who dealt in the theme of the corrupting influence of power: George Orwell with Animal Farm (1945), William Golding with Lord of the Flies (1954), and T. H. White with The Once and Future King (1958).[5] In his view, this was largely a modern idea; a medieval equivalent is the Old English "man deþ swa he byþ þonne he mot swa he wile": "A man does as he is when he can do what he wants", i.e. power reveals existing character, rather than changing it for the worse.[5]

Colin Manlove criticises Tolkien's attitude towards power as inconsistent, with exceptions to the supposedly overwhelming influence of the Ring. The Ring can be handed over relatively easily (Sam and Bilbo), and removing the Ring by force (Gollum to Frodo) does not, despite Gandalf's assertion at the beginning of the story, break Frodo's mind. The Ring also appears to have little effect on characters such as Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli.[6]

Tolkien vs PlatoEdit

The theme of a corrupting ring dates back to Plato's Republic, where the Ring of Gyges gave invisibility and thus the ability to get away with crime.[7] The Tolkien scholar Eric Katz, however writes that "Plato argues that such [moral] corruption will occur, but Tolkien shows us this corruption through the thoughts and actions of his characters";[8] Plato tries to counter the "cynical conclusion" that moral life is chosen by the weak; Glaucon thinks that people are only "good" because they suppose they will be caught if they are not. Plato argues that immoral life is no good as it corrupts one's soul. So, Katz states, according to Plato a moral person has peace and happiness, and would not use a Ring of Power.[8] Katz writes that Tolkien's story "demonstrate[s] various responses to the question posed by Plato: would a just person be corrupted by the possibility of almost unlimited power?"[8] The question is answered in different ways: Gollum is weak, corrupted, and finally destroyed; Boromir begins virtuous but like Plato's Gyges is corrupted "by the temptation of power"[8] from the Ring, even if he wants to use it for good, but redeems himself by defending the hobbits to his own death; the "strong and virtuous"[8] Galadriel, who sees clearly what she would become if she accepted the ring, and rejects it; the immortal Tom Bombadil, exempt from the Ring's corrupting power and from its gift of invisibility; Sam who in a moment of need faithfully uses the ring, but is not seduced by its vision of "Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age"; and finally Frodo who is gradually corrupted, but is saved by his earlier mercy to Gollum, and Gollum's desperation for the Ring. Katz concludes that Tolkien's answer to Plato's "Why be moral?" is "to be yourself".[8]


Shippey replies to Manlove's doubt with "one word": addictive. He writes that this sums up Gandalf's whole argument, as in the early stages, as with Bilbo and Sam, the addiction can be shaken off easily enough, while for those who are not yet addicted, as with Aragorn and indeed others like Galadriel and Faramir, its pull is like any other temptation. What Gandalf could not do to Frodo, Shippey writes, is make him want to hand the Ring over. And for the owner of the Ring, the destructive aspect is the urge to use it, no matter how good the intentions of the owner might be at the start.[1]

Other critics, too, have described the Ring as addictive, with each use progressively increasing the hold the Ring has over its bearer. Bilbo, while possessing the Ring for some time, is able to give it away willingly, though with considerable difficulty. Later, when he encounters the Ring in Rivendell, he experiences a powerful longing to hold it again. Frodo also shows features of addiction, ultimately being unable to relinquish the Ring of his own accord.[9][10]

Sméagol's addictive features become more pronounced as, over five centuries, he devolves into Gollum, showing traits ranging from withdrawal and isolation to suspicion and anger towards others; his obsession leads to his demise.[11]

In Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, the effects of the Ring on Bilbo and Frodo are obsessions that have been compared with drug addiction; the actor Andy Serkis, who played Gollum, cited drug addiction as an inspiration for his performance.[12]



This list identifies each item's location in Tolkien's writings.
  1. ^ a b c d e The Fellowship of the Ring, book 1, ch. 2 "The Shadow of the Past"
  2. ^ The Silmarillion, "Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age"


  1. ^ a b c d Shippey 2002, pp. 115-119.
  2. ^ Perkins, Agnes; Hill, Helen (1975). Lobdell, Jared (ed.). The Corruption of Power. A Tolkien Compass. Open Court. pp. 57–68. ISBN 978-0875483030.
  3. ^ Shippey 2002, pp. 112-119.
  4. ^ Roberts, Adam (2006). "The One Ring". In Eaglestone, Robert (ed.). Reading The Lord of the Rings: New Writings on Tolkien's Classic. Continuum International Publishing Group. p. 63. ISBN 9780826484604.
  5. ^ a b Shippey 2002, pp. 115-116.
  6. ^ Manlove, C. N. (1978) [1975]. J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973) and The Lord of the Rings. Modern Fantasy : Five Studies. Cambridge University Press. pp. 152–206. ISBN 978-0-521-29386-0. OCLC 8661848.
  7. ^ Plato; Jowett, Benjamin (2009) [360 B.C.]. The Republic. The Internet Classics Archive.
  8. ^ a b c d e f Katz, Eric (2003). Bassham, Gregory (ed.). The Rings of Tolkien and Plato: Lessons in Power, Choice, and Morality. The Lord of the rings and philosophy : one book to rule them all. Open Court. pp. 5–20. ISBN 978-0-8126-9545-8. OCLC 863158193.
  9. ^ Yell, D. M. (2007). The Drama of Man. Xulon Press. p. 108. ISBN 9781602667686.
  10. ^ Sommer, Mark (7 July 2004). "Addicted to the Ring". – Pop Culture From A Spiritual Point of View. Retrieved 16 October 2011.
  11. ^ Bell, Anita Miller (2009). 'The Lord of the Rings' and the Emerging Generation: A Study of the Message and Medium. J. R. R. Tolkien and Peter Jackson. p. 56. ISBN 9781109246766.
  12. ^ "Andy Serkis BBC interview". BBC News. 21 March 2003.