I’ve been listening to The Lord of the Rings trilogy recently with my son. I re-read the books a few years back prior to the release of the movie series and really struggled to put my finger precisely on what Tolkien was writing about and what the ring represented. I think I finally figured it out.
The ring has an inherent power about it. But even if used for good ends it results in the ruin of its user. Gandalf doesn’t want to touch it, but Saruman is more than enthusiastic to seek it and desirous to use it. Why is this? What happens if certain types of power are used to attempt to accomplish good? Boromir, one of the men of Gondor, attempts to convince Frodo to give him the ring so that he can use it for good to defeat Sauron, the Dark Lord. Frodo knows the danger of the ring because of how Gandalf reacts to it and of how Bilbo Baggins behaved as he struggled to release the ring from his possession. Frodo refuses to give the ring to Boromir, a good man with desire to use the ring for good. Boromir responds in anger, attempting to take the ring from Frodo.
It was at this point I guessed at the symbolic meaning of the ring being force. It may just be power in general, but I don’t think that it is. There are many characters in the books with power who aren’t ruined by that power. Thus the ring must represent a certain kind of power: Force.
Why does force ruin its wielder? Force fundamentally changes the way humans see each other. It by definition subjugates the will of the one forced to the strength of the forcer. It sets up a hierarchy that is institutionalized (regardless of whether that institution is a government, a church, or a family). This institutionalization of hierarchy creates two entities that are less human than before the force. One (the forcer) is starting to feed off power and lusting for it. The other resents the power, developing hatred for the heirarchy. The one becomes more lustful, the other more hateful. These are opposite of the divine component of human nature.
Eventually, if an individual persists in the use of force, Tolkein is arguing that this person becomes a shadow of his former self. The ringwraiths are nine former kings to whom Sauron gave rings, eventually corrupting them and turning them into shadows who are powerful, but completely subject to the higher forceful power. C.S. Lewis, in The Screwtape Letters, describes the process thus:
One must face the fact that all the talk about His love for men, and His service being perfect freedom, is not (as one would gladly believe) mere propaganda, but an appalling truth, He really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome little replicas of Himself–creatures whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like His own, not because He has absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to His. We want cattle who can finally become food; He wants servants who can finally become sons. We want to suck in, He wants to give out. We are empty and would be filled; He is full and flows over. Our war aim is a world in which Our Father Below has drawn all other beings into himself: the Enemy wants a world full of beings united to Him but still distinct.
This freedom that God (the Enemy that Screwtape refers to) wants for us incongruent with force. This is why any use of force is contrary to the will of God. The ring is the power of force and will destroy all those who think they can wield it even with the best end in mind.