Sauron’s Ring, Parody of the Incarnation

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 42

The previous post commented on Tolkien’s use of the Ring to make the point, similar to Hegel and Marx, of how we become dependent upon or slaves to our technology or artifacts. More than mere psychological dependence, however, Tolkien implies that there is a sense in which, in the process, we have surrendered to these things something of our own being. Thus, in transferring much of his power and purposes into the One Ring, the instrument of his domination, Sauron is also mythically depicted–and in what might be described as a kind of parody of the Incarnation–as placing part of his own self in the Ring, so that when the Ring is destroyed, that part of Sauron tied to the Ring is destroyed along with it: “if the One Ring was actually unmade, annihilated, then its power would be dissolved, Sauron’s own being would be diminished to vanishing point, and he would be reduced to a shadow, a mere memory of malicious will” (Letters 153, emphasis original). In Sauron’s mythic identity of subjective self and external, objective instrument or commodity, Tolkien makes the serious, real-world metaphysical point that, in the process of aggrandizing ourselves through materialistic acquisitiveness and the scientific mastery of nature, we have in fact emptied ourselves, denied our own nature, and sacrificed something of our own inherent and authentic being. As Peter Kreeft writes, in the “idolatry and fetishism” of modern Sauronism, the self has been

‘unselfed’—not filled but emptied, not enhanced but devastated. The object grew into a god, and we shrank into slaves. We exchanged places: we became the objects, the its, and it became the subject, the I. We found our identity in what was less than ourselves, in what we could possess. We were possessed by our possession, or by our possessiveness. We who began as the Adam (Man) became the golem, the ‘Un-man.’ (Kreeft, The Philosophy of Tolkien, 110)

Domination comes at a price, for in reducing the other to oneself, one is required to reduce his self to his other.

An even more extreme example of this phenomenon is Tolkien’s notion of “Morgoth’s Ring,” the idea that

[t]o gain domination over Arda, Morgoth had let most of his being pass into the physical constituents of the Earth—hence all things that were born on Earth and lived on and by it, beasts or plants or incarnate spirits, were liable to be “stained”… Melkor “incarnated” himself (as Morgoth) permanently. He did this so as to control the hröa, the “flesh” or physical matter of Arda. He attempted to identify himself with it. A vaster, and more perilous, procedure, though of similar sort to the operations of Sauron with the Rings. Thus, outside the Blessed Realm, all “matter” was likely to have a “Melkor ingredient,” and those who had bodies, nourished by the hröa of Arda, had as it were a tendency, small or great, towards Melkor: they were none of them wholly free of him in their incarnate form, and their bodies had an effect upon their spirits… Sauron’s, relatively smaller, power was concentrated; Morgoth’s vast power was disseminated. The whole of “Middle-earth” was Morgoth’s Ring…. (Morgoth’s Ring 394-5, 400, emphasis original)

If Sauron’s Ring is a parody of the Incarnation, Melkor’s “Ring” might be said to be a parody of the creation act itself: in dispersing his own being throughout the material creation, Melkor attempts to make the world participate not in Ilúvatar but in himself for its being, a point that would again seem to reveal the subliminal aspirations to divinity behind the modern impetus for the mastery of nature.


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