The meaning of Tolkien’s one ring

Possessiveness is a recurring theme in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. At the beginning, Bilbo is attached to his quiet way of life. His daily trials are no more strenuous than avoiding the Sackville-Bagginses and no more rewarding than a pint of ale and a hearty repast. He has a quotidian existence and Gandalf’s invitation to re-order his life in the shape of a quest is a troubling challenge.

We learn that this bother with Smaug is the upshot of greed: the greed of Thorin Oakenshield’s father and grandfather, and their coveting of the arkenstone. Later, when they seize Smaug’s stronghold, their lust for gold has the potential to bring all to ruin were it not for a clever burglar. A burglar is someone who relieves the burden of possession. Bilbo relieved Gollum of the ring, though after too many years for the darkness-dweller to adjust to the burden of not having it. Gollum might not possess the ring, but the ring still possesses him. In Jungian terms, Gollum is Bilbo’s shadow: the repressed part of himself that he cannot consciously acknowledge but will come face to face with through his quest. Gollum is wild and violent; he also takes Bilbo’s anti-social, obsessive tendencies to an extreme. Like Bilbo, he enjoys small comforts and games – but of a darker shade. Smaug, too, is shadow. He represents more than the dwarves’ uninterrogated greed. He is an usurping serpent in the heart of the mountain and the human heart. His possessiveness of gold is witness to his colossal covetousness of his own self, his massive ego. He loathes nothing more than a thief who might relieve him of his burden and has no greater blindspot than flattery.

When Frodo comes to bear the ring we see exactly how a possession may possess its owner. Like Bilbo, Frodo begins to echo Gollum’s speech: my own, mine. We learn that the ring, though forged, cannot be unmade except in special circumstances. It’s this idea of the ring as a discrete object, whole, existing objectively and immutably as fact, that forms part of its attractiveness (contrast with the Buddhist concept of emptiness). It represents something absolute, apart from other objects, and so able to satisfy dark longings for power and security that all other possessions have failed to quench. The hobbits’ relative resistance to the one ring has its root in their humility; the allure of the ring is the support it lends to the assumption at the root of possessiveness: that there is an enduring ego that gains security through possession. It literally prolongs the life of its bearer, but in doing so unites them with the shadow of their nature. Ultimately, Tolkien dissolves the deadlock between possessor and possession as the ring melts in the belly of Mt. Doom.