Notes from first read of Lord of the Rings

Onyx

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I grew up with Tolkien - animations and story LPs when I was small, a Tolkien Bestiary as an adult, and then the Jackson films. But I never read the books, so I just finished doing that.

As I expected, they were good, boring in parts, much more detailed than any abridged adaptation could be and different from what I would have expected.

One thing that is really clear is that LOTR is not based on the Joseph Campbell paradigm. Frodo's quest is dogged, pessimistic and an act of duty that doesn't reward him.

As I neared the end I realized that only a few protagonists have any real agency - Sam, Merry, Pippin, Eowyn and Treebeard. These characters express aspirations and opinions, take surprising actions and confound the people around them while making pivotal contributions. Frodo, Theoden and Aragorn are important for their actions, but they more pre-programmed and essentially act in accordance with their duty, and don't really diverge from that path. Gimli, Legolas are pretty much just along for the ride and make no real contribution to the plot, even in circumstances like inside Moria where Gimli ought to have insight. But those first five have much to say about their changing understanding of the world, what they hope for and they make choices that are initially unwelcome but ultimately necessary. Only Sam could have gotten Frodo to Mt. Doom. Only Treebird could shatter Saruman's power after great consideration. Only Merry and a Eowyn could kill the Man-proof King of the Nazgul, and their selfish choices to defy orders made that possible.

Tolkien's characters make all sorts of comments about the nature of their world. The elves do not believe in "magic", but are like engineers that don't understand why everyone else is so amazed by magnetism. They seem to truly understand what makes the universe function, but are also so much part of that process that they have a hard time railing against world events and barely appear to contribute to the fight against Sauron.

Gandalf also hints that the structure of the world is much more complex than the clash between Sauron and the various people when he describes his plunge through the underground with the Balrog, which is another artifact of the mysterious world. I was left feeling like the action of the stories are really about the short-sighted power struggle between Sauron and Men, which Dwarves and Elves are merely sympathetic to.

Really, LOTR seems to want to deal with how the newer anomalous beings have upset the old paradigm - the five Wizards and the Hobbits. The Wizards came into being out of nowhere long after the pivotal events that shaped Middle Earth, and seem to be severely limited not just in their magic, but also in their knowledge. It took Gandalf nearly 80 years to figure out that the single most important and dangerous artifact in the fight against Sauron was found by Bilbo, as if magic rings are in any way common. His magic is so limited that even the Nazgul aren't particularly threatened by him, and Elrond is able to produce effects in the world of greater magnitude. It seems as if any elder Elf would have understood the significance and potential of Bilbo's ring upon initial contact.

(My pet theory is that the Istari aren't five Maia, but five aspects of a single Maia, which would explain why they are so limited and human, and why Gandalf is able to essentially take Saruman's magical status from him through rebirth.)

But the biggest anomalies are the Hobbits, who are fully engaged in the regular world, but largely resistant to the temptations Men give into so easily. They have no powers. They don't seem to fit into our myths, as if Tolkien shows us something like the Greek Pantheon but then adds a race of recently arrived aliens to the mix. The Hobbits are fully invested but so much less likely to be evil (different from the incorruptible Dwarves, who are resistant to lots of things but have their own failings). Hobbits are largely egalitarian, get along well with any race, self sufficient, talented and Gandalf, the Rangers and eventually Saruman find them important and interesting. Tolkien uses them to break the mythic paradigms, which always seem to lack people without strong self interest that are motivated primarily by being good souls.


Another aspect of Tolkien world that I thought fascinating was the physical attributes of the smaller races. Despite the size and obvious strength of Men and Elves, the smaller Orcs, Dwarves and even little Hobbits are able to run with them for hours on end. Hobbits are described as if they are physically like children, but the forced marches the barefooted Hobbits make through snow and volcanic terrain hint that they are powerful out of proportion to size, and have capabilities more like a 100 pound Ethiopien marathon runner or a honey badger. One of the biggest things the films miss out on is the sudden, violent and effective uprising against Saruman and the evil Men in the Shire at the end of LOTR. We never really get to fully witness the Hobbits power.

For me, the mysteries of Tolkien's Middle Earth are as interesting as the tale - Tom, what the Hobbits are, the balance between Ents and Trolls, the nature of the Undying Lands, the Balrog and Shelob, what Gandalf witnessed under the earth.

Anyway, thanks for listening to my ranting.
 

Extollager

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Another interesting thing is how Tolkien quietly provides several points that are, in fact, pivotal ones -- perhaps without seeming to be. I'd read LotR several times before I realized something of how very important Galadriel's renunciation of the Ring is when Frodo offers it to her. It's possible that she is the most powerful character in LotR and would have defeated Sauron had she taken the Ring, which she refused to do because she knew she would become what she should not, to the great harm of Middle-earth.
 

Onyx

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Another interesting thing is how Tolkien quietly provides several points that are, in fact, pivotal ones -- perhaps without seeming to be. I'd read LotR several times before I realized something of how very important Galadriel's renunciation of the Ring is when Frodo offers it to her. It's possible that she is the most powerful character in LotR and would have defeated Sauron had she taken the Ring, which she refused to do because she knew she would become what she should not, to the great harm of Middle-earth.
What that scene really brought home to me is just how incredibly resistant to the temptations of the ring the Baggins are. Samwise could only take it for short periods, Smeagol killed for the ring immediately, Boromir was influenced remotely. But Frodo and Bilbo remained uncorrupted for decades. Galadriel seemed to just enjoy passing the contest of wills while remaining as potentially corrupitable as anyone.
 

Brian G Turner

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IIRC, the One Ring doesn't tempt the Hobbits much because they have no worldly ambition - I think there may even have been a passage where Sam [or someone talking to Sam] suggested he could use it to grew a new tree in the Shire where a grand old one had been.

In other words, the Hobbits are content to live a simple, rural life - there is no great underlying greed and need for control that so badly tempted/corrupted others (Gollum, Boromir, Sauron). This may also be a reason why Tom Bombadil was immune - he had no real interest in anything but the moment around him.

That's why it was so dangerous for Gandalf to be offered it - he did have ambition to control and affect the world, but he could resist because he also saw himself as a servant to it, not it's master. I presume similar for Galadriel.

Just a few thoughts since it's not long since I re-read it. :)
 

Onyx

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IIRC, the One Ring doesn't tempt the Hobbits much because they have no worldly ambition - I think there may even have been a passage where Sam [or someone talking to Sam] suggested he could use it to grew a new tree in the Shire where a grand old one had been.

In other words, the Hobbits are content to live a simple, rural life - there is no great underlying greed and need for control that so badly tempted/corrupted others (Gollum, Boromir, Sauron). This may also be a reason why Tom Bombadil was immune - he had no real interest in anything but the moment around him.

That's why it was so dangerous for Gandalf to be offered it - he did have ambition to control and affect the world, but he could resist because he also saw himself as a servant to it, not it's master. I presume similar for Galadriel.

Just a few thoughts since it's not long since I re-read it. :)
I'm not sure if that is entirely accurate. Sam has tempting visions of becoming a leader when he possesses the ring, and Gollum was a Hobbit when corrupted. Plus, Frodo's relations have ambitions that Saruman took advantage of. So I think that while Hobbits have a certain natural lack of affinity for the Ring's power, they are susceptible. Bilbo and Frodo just appear to be especially odd Hobbits with even greater resistance, as well as odd interests and broader perspectives, as if they are super-Hobbits, or at least exemplars of their race.
 

Hugh

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I grew up with Tolkien - animations and story LPs when I was small, a Tolkien Bestiary as an adult, and then the Jackson films. But I never read the books, so I just finished doing that.
Very interesting to have your thoughts, particularly as this is your first read.
 

pyan

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Onyx said:
Samwise could only take it for short periods
IIRC, Sam carried the ring precisely once - when he thought that Frodo had been killed by Shelob. He was also the only person to voluntarily and willingly hand the Ring to someone else.

Incidentally, as you're reading this for the first time, here's something to consider: there's some evidence that JRRT thought of Sam as being the chief hero of the story, not Frodo...

"I think the simple 'rustic' love of Sam and his Rosie (nowhere elaborated) is absolutely essential to the study of his (the chief hero's) character..."

Letters, 131 - to Milton Waldman
 

Onyx

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He was also the only person to voluntarily and willingly hand the Ring to someone else.
Frodo offers the ring to both Gandalf and Galadriel, and hands it to Gandalf. Gandalf handles it twice, then hands the ring back to Frodo.

And I agree that Sam is the hero. It just doesn't seem to be the default assumption, and Bakshi treated Sam as a joke.

Found the quote I was looking for:
"Already the Ring tempted him, gnawing at his will and reason. Wild fantasies arose in his mind; and he saw Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age, striding with a flaming sword across the darkened land, and armies flocking to his call as he marched to the overthrow of Barad-dûr. And then all the clouds rolled away, and the white sun shone, and at his command the vale of Gorgoroth became a garden of flowers and trees and brought forth fruit. He had only to put on the Ring and claim it for his own, and all this could be."

Sam is interesting in being only the third person after Gollum to wear the ring, so his contact with it was much stronger than anyone else who merely handled it.
 
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pyan

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Onyx said:
Gandalf handles it twice, then hands the ring back to Frodo.
Hmm - I wouldn't say Frodo willingly hands the Ring to Gandalf.

"He unfastened it and handed it slowly to the wizard. It felt suddenly very heavy, as if either it or Frodo himself was in some way reluctant for Gandalf to touch it". (My emphasis)

TFotR, Book 1, Ch.2 The Shadow of the Past

On the other hand, Sam simply takes the chain with the Ring off, and hands it back to Frodo, in spite of the fact he's actually worn it.

Galadriel, of course, passes her Test, and never touches the Ring.
 

Onyx

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Hmm - I wouldn't say Frodo willingly hands the Ring to Gandalf.

"He unfastened it and handed it slowly to the wizard. It felt suddenly very heavy, as if either it or Frodo himself was in some way reluctant for Gandalf to touch it". (My emphasis)

TFotR, Book 1, Ch.2 The Shadow of the Past

On the other hand, Sam simply takes the chain with the Ring off, and hands it back to Frodo, in spite of the fact he's actually worn it.

Galadriel, of course, passes her Test, and never touches the Ring.
What about when Frodo hands it willingly to Tom, who, like Gandalf, also hands it right back?
“Show me the precious Ring!’ he said suddenly in the midst of the story: and Frodo, to his own astonishment, drew out the chain from his pocket, and unfastening the Ring handed it at once to Tom.”

To Gandalf:
"Frodo took it from his breeches-pocket, where it was clasped to a chain that hung from his belt. He unfastened it and handed it slowly to the wizard. It felt suddenly very heavy, as if either it or Frodo himself was in some way reluctant for Gandalf to touch it."

Clearly Frodo is affected by the pull of the ring, but he still hands it over without argument or great delay to first Gandalf (who the ring avoids) and then Tom. And that's after Frodo has had the ring for 18 years.

Tom and Gandalf, like Sam, hand it back with no issues. Of course, Tom is so outside of the affects of the ring that he can see Frodo when he's invisible and can wear the ring without becoming invisible himself. One could almost imagine that the ring just fools everyone around it, rather than actually bending light, and Tom can't be fooled.
 

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Onyx, thank you so much for sharing your initial impressions. It's been almost forty years since I first opened the trilogy. I very much enjoy learning of what others take from the story.... oh, I know what I got from the story and I like to post and repost the same things... but it really is good find out what impressed you.

Now I'll jump into my understanding of how the Ring affected Boromir, Faramir, and the Hobbits. I will give some details which I hope add to the explanation rather than detract.... though I know can get off track quickly.

Short answer:

Hobbit's don't have natural resistance to temptation. Hobbit common sense does not lend itself to be tempted by the subjugation of others and ultimate power.

Long answer:

Under the guise of Annatar, Lord of Gifts, Sauron shared knowledge with Celebrimbor, Lord of the Noldor (Elves) of Eregion (the land west of the Misty Mountains) and received knowledge of the schematics for Celebrimbor's Three, Seven, and Nine rings. Knowing the schematics, Sauron secretly forged his Ring to rule all the others.

Sauron's origin was that of a Maia in the service of Aule, the Smith of the Valar. After rebelling against Aule, Sauron became Melkor's servant. Melkor had great understanding of all of the individual talents of the Valar and thus was the second greatest smith.... i.e. Sauron got a second apprenticeship.

Celebrimbor was the son of Curufin, the son of Feanor (Curufinwe). Feanor was the greatest of all Elven smiths eg. he created the Silmarils. Obviously, Celebrimbor followed the family love of smithing.

The Ruling Ring was made solely by Sauron and he put part of his strength and his will... i.e. himself... into the Ring. Somehow this amplified his power. Since his revolt against the Valar, Sauron's ambition was to dominate others through terror and strength.

In Post #8, on this page, Onyx quoted how the Ring tempted Sam. I believe the Ring tried to show Sam how he could fix the world through strength and dominion. As a gardener, Sam knew strength at times is needed, but more necessary is patience, diligence, and love. Since leaving the Shire, Sam had seen great geographical wonders and knew that the entire world did not need to become his personal garden. His basic Hobbit common sense screamed in warning when the Ring tried to tempt him with lands and might.

In time, the Ring might have tried new tactics with Sam... and I believe it did with both Bilbo and Frodo. But Sauron's will/power, in the Ring, really could not understand the simple Hobbit love of contentment. Sauron wanted more. Hobbits wanted to just be with family and friends in the moment.

I guess you could call this a natural resistance to temptation. Certainly, Hobbits should get a +10 roll to Will Saves.

So how did Hobbits get like this? In Post #5, on this page, Onyx called Gollum a Hobbit when he took the Ring. Genetically, Smeagol was definitely a proto-Hobbit... the Hobbits did not call themselves Hobbits for at least a few centuries. For the sake of argument, Smeagol was a Hobbit.

Smeagol murdered Deagol for the Ring before Smeagol even touched it. If Hobbits are naturally resistant to that kind of temptation, then how did Smeagol succumb to a two or three second glimpse of the Ring to commit murder? Boromir was much more resistant than that!

Smeagol's Hobbits still lived in the wild. They were not under the protection of the Dunedain.

So how did the Hobbits achieve resistance to temptation?

I find my answer in The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter Two: The Council of Elrond. In response to Boromir's questioning of the Sword that was Broken and Boromir's claim of thanklessness from others, Aragorn gives a speech (right after Bilbo's poem All that is gold...)...

"If Gondor, Boromir, has been a stalwart tower, we have played another part. Many evil things there are that your strong walls and bight swords do not stay.... Peace and freedom do you say? The North would have known them little but for us. Fear would have destroyed them.... And yet less thanks have we than you.... 'Strider' I am to one fat man who lves within a day's march of foes that would freeze his heart, or lay his little town to ruin, if he were not guarded ceaselessly. Yet we would not have it otherwise. If simple folk are free from care and fear, simple they will be, and we must be secret to keep them so." (The emphasis is mine.)

The Dunedain of Arnor kept the North guarded, the Shire especially. This enabled the Hobbits to achieve their culture of pastoral charm, neighborly concern, and polite manners. That the Shire was worth guarding, in order to achieve a simple culture, was beyond Sauron's understanding. All he knew was subjugation.

I get the feeling Aragorn really liked Bilbo. Part of the reason is that in Bilbo, Aragorn gets to see and know the value of the labor of his people for hundreds of years. Just helping Bilbo make his rhymes is the precise thanks that Aragorn needs. And Aragorn is really touched when Bilbo defends his honor to Boromir.

As for Boromir's temptation, in The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter Five: The Window on the West, Faramir guesses as to the nature of Isildur's Bane...

"What in truth this Thing is I cannot yet guess; but some heirloom of power and peril it must be. A fell weapon, perchance, devised by the Dark Lord. If it were a thing that gave advantage in battle, I can well believe that Boromir, the proud and fealess, often rash, ever anxious for the victory of Minas Tirith (and his own glory therein), might desire such a thing and be allured by it. Alas that ever he went on that errand! I should have been chosen by my father and the elders, but he put himself forward, as being the older and the hardier (both true), and he would not be stayed."

"But fear no more! 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, Frodo son of Drogo."

"For myself, I would see the White Tree in flower... and the Silver Crown return, and Minas Tirith in peace... full of light, high and fair, beautiful as a queen among other queens; not a mistress of many slaves.... I love only that which they defend: the city of the Men of Numenor; and I would have her loved for her memory, her ancientry, her beauty, and her present wisdom. Not feared, save as men may fear the dignity of a man, old and wise." (The emphasis is mine.)

Boromir and Faramir were brothers. They looked very much alike. But Faramir had already decided to love lovely things, not tools. So when each were tempted with the greatest tool... Boromir succumbed for a moment, even though he knew he might not outrun Aragorn... Faramir resisted even when he had Frodo at his mercy with hundreds of soldiers at his beck and call.

Faramir personally cultivated the same type of mentality that the Hobbits cultivated under the watchful eyes of the Dunedain. I think Aragorn, Gandalf, Elrond, and Galadriel did the same.
 
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Stephen Palmer

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I think hobbits symbolise a lot of what Tolkien loathed about the world around him - the Big World as you could say.
One of the most powerful parts of the novel is when they get back to the Industrial Revolution...
Tolkien is on record as saying that was 'in the story' from the beginning.
 

Stephen Palmer

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Short answer:

Hobbit common sense does not lend itself to be tempted by the subjugation of others and ultimate power.
I think hobbits view power with the same bemusement as Tolkien.
They don't see what all the fuss is about.
How ironic then that almost every character in the books is a man.
 

aThenian

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Incidentally, as you're reading this for the first time, here's something to consider: there's some evidence that JRRT thought of Sam as being the chief hero of the story, not Frodo...

"I think the simple 'rustic' love of Sam and his Rosie (nowhere elaborated) is absolutely essential to the study of his (the chief hero's) character..."
That's interesting. I think Sam certainly becomes the main character, as the book progresses. Frodo is too removed from the world, preoccupied with his own internal torments, once he has been injured by the Riders and then made his choice at Rivendell. Most of the later part of the story is from Sam's point of view.


As I neared the end I realized that only a few protagonists have any real agency - {others} more pre-programmed and essentially act in accordance with their duty, and don't really diverge from that path.
Agree with that. I've said on other threads that I think LOTR is a bit like Homer really - if you're a hero you act according to that role. I think that's one of the main differences between the books and the films - the films by contrast try and give every character choice and they are invariably tempted to do the wrong and selfish thing before being persuaded to do the right thing (eg Treebeard, Faramir, the elves who leave and then come back again, etc etc) Don't exactly agree with your division of characters, but I do think it's true that the individual psychology only becomes crucial in a few cases - would add Gollum in there, he has real choice, real agency, real agonies as to what he is to do.

His magic is so limited that even the Nazgul aren't particularly threatened by him
As for Gandalf, I don't think it's that his magic is limited at all, it's that if he were actually to use his magic, it would destroy the story - which depends on them being underdogs - so actually what Tolkien does is use all kinds if elaborate plot devices to keep him out of the action. So, for example, Gandalf probably could have taken on the ring wraiths and protected Frodo on the way to Rivendell, and therefore he has to be kept out of the way so that the hobbits can face genuine peril - therefore, Tolkien invents the even-more-powerful Saruman who kidnaps Gandalf. The whole story is full of Gandalf being diverted and distracted by Balrogs, mad Stewards of Gondor determined to burn their son to death etc etc
 

pyan

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I'm not sure about that last point.
Gandalf Vs Lord Of The Nazgul was a very close call...
Only in Peter Jackson’s version. In the book, it’s a stand-off at the gate of Minas Tirith, both sitting on their various steeds and trading insults about whose time had come. Angmar decides that Rohan needs dealt with first and turns and rides away, without all that nonsense about broken staffs and falling off Shadowfax...
 

aThenian

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I find it quite funny toward the very end of LOTR when Gandalf says to the hobbits that they must go and sort things out in the Shire by themselves, that they are ready to manage without him. They've actually been managing without him pretty much the whole time!

(But it is the art of Tolkien that it takes a lot of rereads to actually notice this.)
 

paranoid marvin

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One of the most interesting aspects is Gollum. He murders to obtain the Ring without touching it, and without knowing anything about it's power. It raises questions about how the Ring can influence and manipulate those simply in close proximity to it.

Another interesting question is whether the 'lesser' rings corrupt. One can only assume that the answer is 'yes' as mortal men become wraiths. It raises the question as to whether those who wear these rings of power are corrupted unwittingly. It is the ringholders (Gandalf and Elrond) who choose not to use the One Ring to bring down Sauron ;instead they decide send it directly back to it's master's stronghold in a suicidal mission which will almost certainly end in Sauron reclaiming his prized possession. Something similar happens in Lothlorien with two other ring holders. Have the minor rings (perhaps in conjunction with the close proximity of the Master Ring) caused them to be persuaded not to use it to defeat Sauron, but to instead saend it back to him?
 

aThenian

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Another interesting question is whether the 'lesser' rings corrupt. One can only assume that the answer is 'yes' as mortal men become wraiths.
I don't think they do corrupt - I don't think either the dwarvish rings (which got eaten by dragons, I think) or the elvish rings corrupted their owners.

I can't remember - if it is much explained - how the mortal men became wraiths, but I don't think it was because they had rings, I think it was because Sauron was able to take advantage of their flawed nature - and dominate them. I think Tolkien tends to see mortal men as weaker and more corruptible certainly than the elves (maybe it's his Catholicism leads him to put a big emphasis on corruptiblity and temptation?), not that the rings themselves are inherently corrrupting.

It raises the question as to whether those who wear these rings of power are corrupted unwittingly. It is the ringholders (Gandalf and Elrond) who choose not to use the One Ring to bring down Sauron ;instead they decide send it directly back to it's master's stronghold in a suicidal mission which will almost certainly end in Sauron reclaiming his prized possession... Have the minor rings (perhaps in conjunction with the close proximity of the Master Ring) caused them to be persuaded not to use it to defeat Sauron, but to instead saend it back to him?
I don't think that's a reading Tolkien intended. Gandalf says nobody but Sauron is strong enough to use the One Ring - or not without being turned as evil as Sauron. Although it's a slim chance, destroying the One Ring is the only chance they have to defeat evil. But a text is what the reader makes of it, I guess! It would make the entire plot heroic but ultimately kind of pointless!
 

paranoid marvin

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I don't think they do corrupt - I don't think either the dwarvish rings (which got eaten by dragons, I think) or the elvish rings corrupted their owners.

I can't remember - if it is much explained - how the mortal men became wraiths, but I don't think it was because they had rings, I think it was because Sauron was able to take advantage of their flawed nature - and dominate them. I think Tolkien tends to see mortal men as weaker and more corruptible certainly than the elves (maybe it's his Catholicism leads him to put a big emphasis on corruptiblity and temptation?), not that the rings themselves are inherently corrrupting.



I don't think that's a reading Tolkien intended. Gandalf says nobody but Sauron is strong enough to use the One Ring - or not without being turned as evil as Sauron. Although it's a slim chance, destroying the One Ring is the only chance they have to defeat evil. But a text is what the reader makes of it, I guess! It would make the entire plot heroic but ultimately kind of pointless!

I agree it is highly unlikely to have been Tolkein's interpretation, but playing devil's advocate, it could be interpreted as such, and would make entire sense as to why the (minor ring) bearers will not use it to bring down Sauron down and why they effectively send the ring into the heart of his domain. Aragorn showed he could match minds with Sauron with the Palantir; perhaps his heart was pure enough to wield the Ring and not to succumb to it's allure? Certainly he could have taken the Ring at any time, so this shows that he had at least SOME mastery over it's influence, and Tom Bombadil had proven that someone other than Sauron could wear it (and give it up) with no ill effect.

Again, I'm sure that none of this was Tolkein's intention, but it is interesting (and fun) to speculate on what an alternative LOTR trilogy could have produced.
 

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