The Ring is the major metaphor of the entire work. Tolkien always denied that The Lord
of the Rings was an allegory (that is, a work, such as Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, in
which narrative elements correspond to meanings outside the story on a one-to-one
basis). Critics often suggested, for example, that the Ring represented the Atomic Bomb
or some other "ultimate weapon"; Tolkien unequivocally rejected such suggestions. Yet
the Ring is clearly a symbol for evil. The Ring cannot, in fact, be discounted as a
character in the story. At several points (for example, Frodo's disappearance at Bree) the
narrative suggests that the Ring possesses a will of its own. Critic Tom Shippey, in his
book J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002) posits
that the question of the Ring's agency represents Tolkien's complex view of the nature of
evil: Evil is both something within the human heart and an independent force. In one of
his own letters, Tolkien wrote that the Ring symbolized "the will to mere power" (see
The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter [1981; Boston: Houghton
Mifflin Company, 2000], p. 160). The text itself makes clear that the Ring is no neutral
power, to be used for good or for ill; rather, as Elrond attempts to warn Boromir, the
Ring's "strength is too great for anyone to wield at will . . . . [T]he very desire of it
corrupts the heart."
The Ringwraiths symbolize this corrupting power of evil. As Shippey notes, like the
Ring itself, the Ringwraiths are ambiguous symbols. While they take physical form
(cloaked figures riding horses), they are also non-corporeal, at least in this world. Only
when Frodo wears the Ring on Weathertop is he able to see the wraiths as they are:
shadows of the kingly Men they once were (note their grey robes, their "haggard" hands).
According to Shippey, this ambiguity, too, reflects a long-standing religious and
philosophical debate about the nature of evil: is it an objective reality, or is it
"nothingness" or the absence of good/God? In either event, Gandalf's words to Frodo
summarize the wraiths' symbolic significance: "A mortal . . . who keeps one of the Great
Rings, does not die, but he does not grow or obtain more life, he merely continues, until
at last every moment is a weariness . . . . [S]ooner or later, the dark power will devour
The Shire, presented as an almost-Edenic land of gardens and pleasure, could be a
metaphor for an innocence and purity of life, threatened by evil. Pressing the Eden
analogy further, readers might note that, like his uncle Bilbo before him, Frodo "falls"
from this "state of grace" through "the knowledge of good and evil"-except Frodo does
not willingly eat of his "apple," the One Ring (except in those instances in which he
yields to the temptation to wear it). Rather, knowledge of good and evil (namely, good
versus evil) is thrust upon him. Nevertheless, Frodo must leave the Shire-an echo of the
expulsion from Paradise? At several occasions in this volume, as well as throughout the
volumes to follow, he and his fellow Hobbits express a yearning to return to the Shire.
When they eventually do, however, in Book VI, they find that even the Shire has not
escaped the evil of Sauron (see "The Scouring of the Shire" in The Return of the King).
Never again can the Shire be the isolated pocket of innocence it once was-or was
supposed by the vast majority of its inhabitants to be; in the characters of the
Sackville-Bagginses, particularly in Book VI, we may see hints that seeds of evil already
lay dormant in the Shire, waiting to be cultivated.
Rivendell and Lothlï¿½rien also function to some degree as metaphors for Paradise or a
blessed state of being. Like the Shire, neither of these Elven realms can afford to remain
isolated from the larger world of Middle-earth; the Elves themselves recognize that their
time is coming to an end.
Moria, in contrast to the Shire and the Elven realms, may be seen as a metaphor for the
opportunities and dangers of wealth. At its height, the Dwarf kingdom in Moria was a
vibrant and productive community. By the time the Fellowship reaches Moria, however,
all of the Dwarves' great achievements lie in ruins, populated by Orcs-and worse. As
Gandalf states, "[E]ven as mithril was the foundation of [the Dwarves'] wealth, so also it
was their destruction: they delved too greedily and too deep, and disturbed that from
which they fled . . . ."
The Dwarves fled the Balrog, who is one of the symbols of primordial evil in The Lord
of the Rings, evils who are older than Sauron himself and who are indifferent to the
present conflict over the One Ring. The Watcher at the gates of Moria is another
example of such an evil, as is Old Man Willow in the Old Forest. The tale also contains
symbols of primordial good, however, most notably Tom Bombadil in Book I. Readers
will encounter other symbols of primordial good and evil in the latter volumes. These
symbols' presence may remind us that the struggle between Good and Evil is ancient
indeed, and is deeper than any "worldly" conflict of the moment.