The Ring is Not Gold, But Pride

All that glitters is not gold.  This is one of the major themes of the first book of The Lord of the Rings series, The Fellowship of the Ring (1954).  I appreciate this theme because I’ve known people who tend to sparkle.  I’ve seen others fall all over these supposedly golden people.  They can do no wrong.  During one experience, I saw the dark side of this person.  I saw the meanness, falseness, and cruelty that this person was capable of.  Yet, because this person seemingly “glittered,” everybody else could not see through the facade.  They continued to adore and almost worship this person, yet I knew the dark secrets, the lies, and the double-faced nature of this person.  To me, that entire situation and experience has been summed up in the theme of The Fellowship of the Ring: all that glitters is not gold.  Don’t let outward sparkle deceive; there may be something different on the inside.

Obviously, I have had a hard time forgiving this person.  It has taken years to get to a point where I am not thinking about the awful pain caused by this person’s actions and words.  It will take many years more to completely forgive and learn to love without an apology or a reunited sense of kinship.  That’s okay.  I learned a long time ago that forgiveness does not mean reconciliation.  I can continue to work on my own heart.  But in the mean time, I am wary of “sparkly” friends and those whose substance is mostly on the outside rather than within.  I have a friend who often notices that the best trait of others is that they are “real.”  We like real people.

Back to my thoughts on The Fellowship of the Ring.  Of course, I had already seen the movies.  I did not really enjoy them much.  I tolerated them for my husband’s sake.  So, I went into reading the first book with an attitude of not being ready to like it.  And to be honest, I didn’t like it, BUT I didn’t hate it either.  I am just in the middle, a negotiated subject position, as fantasy is not really my one true love when it comes to literature.  But because The Lord of the Rings books are number 2 on the BBC book list, this is my attempt at beginning to read the entire trilogy.

This is our “fancy” copy from Barnes and Noble. Its beauty is highlighted by the scarred backdrop of our bookshelves. (Children destroy everything.)

I enjoyed the first part of the book the most.  I liked reading about the hobbits and their village.  I find hobbits to be creatures of habit, something that I am as well, and I connected with their sense of order and community.

Once the journey began, I lost a little interest, but it was renewed with the appearance of Strider (who we learn is Aragorn).  I felt uneasy and apprehensive when Frodo has to decide if Strider is THE Strider or an imposter.  That tension increased when the black riders come looking for them at the inn.  I felt gripped by the story.  I guess it was the thrill of the chase and the close escape from danger.

I see Strider as a comforter and mentor to Frodo, as the story obviously follows the hero cycle, which you can read my explanation of here.  Frodo is an unlikely hero, but that is his appeal. We like the underdog, the rags-to-riches tales, and the Cinderella-like stories.  All are underdogs in a sense, so we tend to cheer for them.  It makes us believe that we could overcome in such a situation or that we can even face the more realistic tragedies and trials in our lives.

As I read, I began to wonder what the ring represents.  To me, it seems to be pride.  The ring, if used too often, causes the wearer to become more and more selfish and evil.  This is true also with pride.  If we give into that pride, which tells us that we are better than or deserve more than others, we will become more and more selfish and evil by degrees.  It is a slow and binding process, similar to the ring’s pull on its owners.  Power is seductive, but thinking that one deserves such power over others is pride.

To bring this fantasy story about good and evil down to an everyday level, we all suffer from pride.  Mine comes and goes, and I have good days and bad days.  It is a constant struggle for me not to put on that ring and claim that power or the invisibility to consequences that I think I deserve at times.  Luckily, Frodo has Strider to guide him.  Luckily, the rest of us have God, or the Holy Ghost, or sacred books, or the universe to guide us.  Whatever your religious persuasion, we all have a conscience and an inner voice to guide us when we allow it to speak to our soul instead of drowning it out with pride.

And like Bilbo, we often have a hard time letting go.  I guess this is where forgiveness comes back into my analysis.  I need to forgive.  There are so many people I need to forgive, not just the one I mentioned above.  But as Bilbo has a hard time letting go of the ring, or his pride, I, too, have a hard time letting go.

from Wikimedia Commons

It seems that the ring’s power to make one invisible is instructive here, too.  If overused, the ring will cause permanent invisibility.  To me, this could be a religious consequence of skipping mortality.  It could also be read as a consequence of holding onto one’s pride.  Ultimately, it will only hurt the person who is vengeful, selfish, and full of grudges.

Now, I can’t close this post without mentioning the music and the poetry of the hobbits.  They have a rich artistic culture, one that J.R.R. Tolkien created single-handedly.  Wow.  I am impressed with his creation of the songs, even the melodies, and his creation of this fantastical world.  He has true talent at creation.  I found many of the songs and poems to be silly or annoying, but I respect the work that went into them.  The one that I could not get out if my head for weeks was “Old Tom Bombadill.”

Are you an LOTR fan?  What is your favorite part or most insightful reading of the symbols?

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27 thoughts on “The Ring is Not Gold, But Pride

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  1. I listened to these on audiobook, and the actor who read them sang the Hobbit poems and music. It was hilarious! I also had “Old Tom Bombadill” stuck in my head for weeks!

  2. I’m not sure I would call myself a “fan,” but I read the books and found them engrossing. Echoes of Plato’s “ring of Gyges” in the “republic” where a shepherd boy finds a ring that makes him invisible and he is able to seduce the Queen, kill the King and become powerful himself. Socrates has to argue that a truly virtuous man would never succumb to that temptation. Yeah, right!

  3. I’m a huge LOTR nerd going way back into childhood. These were the books that my Mom read aloud to my siblings and I, chapter by chapter, each night after dinner. And we repeated this series more than one time, so the stories are now more familiar than any other to me even in adulthood. They weigh heavily in the formation of my morality as well.

    My favorite theme in the book has become cliche (which just gores me!) but it is this: “Not all who wander are lost.” I love this theme throughout the trilogy and the Hobbit, though it came before Strider even said it. People are on their personal paths, and others may not see the reasons why, but each path is important. As an apparently wandering adult, I re-visit this theme in my own life quite often.

    I also like the idea that no matter how insignificant you are as a person, you have the choices to make large impacts in your world. I also love the Ents! And for much of my childhood I truly believed that trees were conscious beings and probably the most wise of all creatures.

    I loved the poetry and the songs because my brilliant Mom would read them in the “voice” and sing them without reservation. Tom Bombadill and Goldberry were a favorite section as I always imagined myself as the water nymph, Goldberry, and the merry quiet life along the river with my magical mate. Or the idea of “The Last Homely House” with Beornings that serve bread and honey and turn into bears. So rich in imagination.

    Obviously I could go on and on. These stories are, without hesitation, my top favorite of any books I’ve read. I was a fan of the movies because I was a fan of the books, and although I loved the movies, they also disappoint. Because they have to. No one else’s visualizations of what Middle Earth was like could possibly touch my own lifespan of imaginings inside these stories, and I think that is the great strength of Tolkien’s writing.

    Thanks for bringing this up! It obviously brings a lot up for me to revisit my first Tolkien moments.

    1. Wow! You know a lot. I should’ve had you write this post for me! I, too, like the ideas that small people can be important and that not all who wander are lost. Cliches now, but for a reason. They are true.

    2. Thank you for your post. These stories are also my top favorite of any books I’ve read. The moral issues raised by these books had great influence on my development as a person, as I was only a teen when I read them, and I’d never read anything like it before, these books were remarkable and appealing.
      I love the way you talk about these books (although I know nothing about the music, because they were never released in Portugal and we didn’t have internet access at the time), because my experience with the story is, in so many ways, equal to yours.

  4. I love Denise’s comment. I’m a big LOTR fan too. I’m one of those people who sat through the movies going, “No, that’s not what happened in the book.” Not out loud, of course! But I re-read LOTR every year or so, and I can’t wait to read it to my kids. I probably won’t do the songs, though, I always feel silly trying to sing them.

    I’m a limited fantasy reader – I think fantasy is a difficult genre because you have to create a believable world with enough familiar reference points that the reader can envision your world and follow the story without going, “What?” all the time. Tolkein did a good job of this (C.S. Lewis did a good job with the Narnia series too) but I noticed that he made the hobbits just about as English as can be. They’re basically English country people. They’re down to earth, practical, they love gardening and the comforts of home, and they love their beer. English! Tolkein used a lot of Celtic and Welsh linguistics and folklore in LOTR for his humans. The Elves are totally northern European, I would venture to say Germanic in origin? In the film version of The Two Towers when all the blond Elves march in in lockstep to help defend Helm’s Deep, that’s a real Aryan Power moment. The Horse people are very Scandinavian, all the long blond flowing locks even though the names are very Celtic (Eowyn, Eomer, etc.) If Tolkein had put them on a sea coast and given them ships we’d recognize them instantly as Vikings. But instead of ships, they have horses. Aragorn’s people don’t seem to have a recognizable cultural origin apart from also being clearly Northern European, but they’re the Kings so I guess they don’t need to be distinguished. The disturbing thing is that when you hear the Orcs’ language, it sounds really guttural and sort of….um, Arabic? Yikes. Mind you, C.S. Lewis’ Calormenes in the Narnia series were also either Arabic or Indian in origin. I guess it just goes with the territory and these writers were products of their times. But I think their decisions to root their fantasy ethnic groups in real ethnic groups helps make their stories easier to digest and follow. Let’s face it; you can’t make things too weird or you lose your audience.

    I think we’re all enchanted by the idea of the mighty and dreadful being brought down by the small and powerless. It’s David and Goliath. There’s also the unwilling hero aspect to Frodo and Sam’s quest. They don’t want to destroy the ring, they’re frightened to bits, but they go on because they must; the fate of many hangs in the balance. This speaks to everyone; we’ve all had to forge ahead and perform difficult tasks simply because we must. So we can relate to their quest. When I’m working late into the night and I’m so tired, and I’m hungry, and I really want to quit, I think to myself, “But at least I’m not climbing Mount Doom to destroy the One Ring.” Well, no, I don’t, but maybe I should.

    Anyway, you can read LOTR through a dozen different filters. But at the end of the day it’s a terrific story with lots of emotional impact and I think my kids will love it.

    Side note: interestingly, one of my favourite writers, Helen Hanff (84, Charing Cross Road), hated LOTR. I remember being crushed when I read that (in Underfoot in Show Business). But she didn’t like fiction in general, she preferred memoirs and history.

    1. I love your comments! That is so neat what you’ve observed about the different groups in Middle Earth being similar to the different ethnic groups and countries in our actual world. And your David and Goliath reference is spot on. Great observation! I’m sorry I don’t really like them. Fantasy really isn’t for everybody. I do wonder, however, if I would’ve appreciated these books more as a child. Probably.

    2. Now that it’s written, I wonder why didn’t I thought about it before? It really makes sense, and it couldn’t be otherwise. Of course the different groups in Middle Earth are similar to the different ethnic groups and countries in our actual world, as Emily said. I can actually visualize the Hobbits as English country people and the Elves as northern European. You can’t create a new fantasy world without real life references, can you?
      Tolkien realy was a genius.

  5. I’ve not read Lord of the Rings yet, but have seen the films. Like you, I am not a great fantasy fan so wasn’t expecting to enjoy them but loved them in the end. I imagine the books are different in many ways though. Holly and I tried to read The Hobbit but only got 2/3 of the way through – she’s lost interest. I will return to it though as I liked it.

    Anyway, I felt your interpretation of the story was very interesting and intuitive. It’s interesting how you make a connection between Frodo and Cinderella, and the rags to riches storyline. I am studying fairy tales at the moment as part of an MA in Children’s Literature, and the specific one for this week is Beauty and the Beast. This is certainly a tale which features an underdog – Beauty – who manages to see past the Beast’s ugliness to a being who is intelligent and caring. This attitude ultimately rewards her handsomely. Interestingly there is a ring in this – when she wants to return home or return to the Beast’s palace, she is to take off a ring and she will wake up where she needs to be. I wonder if rings are chosen to represent how easy it is for humans to either take the wrong or right path.

    1. Ooh! I love that interpretation of the ring, and of any ring, in fairy tales. That is insightful. When you’re done with The Hobbit, would you like to write a review of it for me? I don’t want to reread it just to post about it for my list… 🙂

  6. Your comments about sparkly people struck a real chord with me. Although I feel I have not been as hurt as you, I have had a sparkly friend who has made me feel like I mean nothing in her life. If you say anything to mutual friends, you end up sounding like the spiteful one yourself as they can only see the glitter.

    1. Yes, exactly! I have not said much about what actually happened with my sparkly friend except to a trusted few who saw through the sparkle. But nobody would have believed me and, as you say, I would have come out as the mean, spiteful one. Such a rough situation. Hang in there. My problem moved away and began giving me the silent treatment, so it all worked out! 🙂

  7. I’m definitely a fan of LOTR. I was only a teen when i’ve read it for the first time and reading was quite a uncharted experience for me (not because it was the first book, because it was not, but by the sensory intensity of this reading). I felt enthusiasm, curiosity, tenderness towards Frodo and his friends, awe towards Gandalf and I was terrified of the black riders. I remember being so scared when the hobbits saw them for the first time on the road and went into hiding, I had to close the book immediately. Of course it was an empathic response to the terror that the characters were expiriencing. And this was one of many passages that made me live the story, feel with the characters, seeing and sensing it all.

    I’ve read the books several times until today. I agree when you say that Frodo is an unlikely hero. He is weak (with a strong mind and attitude), he is scared and needs help to fulfill its mission. However, he is also determined, brave and adventurous.

    I also agree that the dichotomy of good versus evil, right versus wrong is one of the focal points of this trilogy, as it was already in The Hobbit. And has I see it, it’s one of the main themes on literature in general.

    I refused to see the movies for months. When I finally saw them on DVD, I sad and amazed at the same time, because the movies aren’t totaly accurate towards the story in the book, though I can still recognize the main story.

    I want to thank you for your brilliant analysis of these books, I didn’t do this kind of analysis for a while and, I confess, I never had the courage to write it. In my mind I separate the books I read for pleasure (even though I analize them mentally), from those that I also read for work (I’ve degree in Literature – Portuguese, Brazilian and Portuguese-speaking African countries Literature).

    I’d like to be able to continue to write about the themes and symbolism of these books, which I love, but I do not write in English for a long, long time and I feel quite rusty. I’m afraid that the appalling amount of grammatical errors can jeopardize the mean. For that, I’m sorry.

    1. I am so glad you weighed in. It is always interesting to hear others’ experiences with reading certain books. You know a lot and don’t be afraid to write your own analyses. I am sure they would be just great!

  8. I love your thoughts about “all that glitters is not gold!” It really makes you think about how we see people and what people want to project. Funnily enough, I just read Paper Towns by John Green, whose theme is very similar. Enjoying your blog so far!

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