4.3. The Ring and Temptation

4.3.1. Free Will, Choice and Temptation

It is trite to say that The Lord of the Rings is a story about the conflict between Good and Evil, if it is not understood what the real nature of Good and Evil involves. I have already suggested that the essence of Evil is control and domination, and the essence of Good is free will. The Ring, at once symbolising and personifying Evil, presents all those who are confronted with it with the essential ingredients of Evil. The Ring tempts, subverts and finally, if taken, dominates the individual in the same way as Sauron wishes to dominate and control the world. The Ring removes choice and conquers free will. But it is the nature of Good to allow this to happen, for at all times Good permits the free person to elect whether or not to follow the Good or Evil path, and in this way Good relies upon the inherent goodness that exists within an individual to make the correct choice.

This does not mean that if the wrong choice has been made, a person is lost, for there is always an opportunity for redemption [120]. Once again the opportunity to exercise choice to turn away from the path of evil is available.

Primarily the Ring is a source of temptation. It tempts those who do not have it to seek and obtain it. It tempts those who have it to use it and it tempts those who have had it to recover it.

There is a fine line between choosing to use the Ring and not doing so. Frodo feels the urge to do so whilst he is in the Shire. But it is at Weathertop that the resistance to temptation is overcome by those of stronger will - the Black Riders. When Frodo put on the Ring, it was not mere temptation, although this did overcome him initially.

    "But his terror was swallowed up in a sudden temptation to put on the Ring. The desire to do this laid hold of him, and he could think of nothing else. He did not forget the Barrow, nor the message of Gandalf; but something seemed to be compelling him to disregard all warnings, and he longed to yield. Not with the hope of escape, or of doing anything, either good or bad: he simply felt that he must take the Ring and put it on his finger......(h)e shut his eyes and struggled for a while; but resistance became unbearable, and at last he slowly drew out the chain, and slipped the Ring on the forefinger of his left hand." [121]

After being treated by Aragorn, Frodo;

    "(B)itterly regretted his foolishness, and reproached himself for weakness of will; for he now perceived that in putting on the Ring he obeyed not his own desire but the commanding wish of his enemies." [122]

The essential morality that rules Middle-earth, and indeed which is the basic indicator of freedom is the freedom to choose. All the Free Peoples have the freedom of choice, and this is an essential attribute of Good. As we have seen, Evil seeks domination, rule and control. The forces of Good allow for free will and free choice, even although this may lead to a disastrous end.

The whole Tale of the Ring, especially from Frodo's point of view, is a story of choice and the exercise of free will. Frodo chooses to take the Road to the Fire at the Council of Elrond. In making that choice, he is not only exposing himself to a path fraught with extraordinary danger, but also he is making a choice to expose himself to the continued temptation and challenges of choice that the Ring presents to him.

The confrontation between Boromir and Frodo is perhaps the most graphic example of the issue of choice, for it involves a number of elements.

First, there is the temptation of Boromir. It is quite clear that the Ring had been a source of concern for Boromir from the moment he first saw it. He considered that it should be used as a weapon against Sauron, for the relief of Gondor. His desires are known to Galadriel. Indeed, even in Lorien the members of the Fellowship are tested;

    "All of them, it seemed, had fared alike: each had felt that he was offered a choice between a shadow full of fear that lay ahead, and something that he greatly desired: clear before his mind it lay, and to get it he had only to turn aside from the road and leave the Quest and the war against Sauron to others.
    'And it seemed to me, too,' said Gimli, 'that my choice would remain secret and known only to myself.'
    'To me it seemed exceedingly strange, 'said Boromir. "Maybe it was only a test, and she thought to read our thoughts for her own good purpose; but almost I should have said that she was tempting us, and offering what she pretended she had the power to give. It need not be said that I refused to listen. The Men of Minas Tirith are true to their word'. But what he thought that the Lady had offered him, Boromir did not tell." [123]

Sam realised that the Ring was preying on Boromir's mind [124]. Boromir becomes more introspective as the Fellowship journeys down the River. Finally, he confronts Frodo on the slopes of Amon Hen. His attitude is friendly, conciliatory, until he desires a sight of it again. His attitude changes and he refers to the fact that true-hearted men will not be corrupted, and in saying this, he demonstrates hubris. He then reiterates his suggestion made first at Imladris that the Power of the Enemy should be used against him. Then he envisions himself as the Ring bearer, should Aragorn refuse the burden.

    " 'The Ring would give me the power of Command. How I would drive the hosts of Mordor, and all men would flock to my banner.'
    Boromir strode up and down, speaking ever more loudly. Almost he seemed to have forgotten Frodo, while his talk dwelt on walls and weapons, and the mustering of men; and he drew plans for great alliances and glorious victories to be; and he cast down Mordor, and became himself a mighty king, benevolent and wise." [125]

Boromir tries to persuade, adopts a friendly approach, but his goal is the Ring. First he says that he needs it, then asks Frodo to lend it to him, demands it, and then uses force. Frodo puts the Ring on to escape, and Boromir, after a moment, realises what he has done, and claims that a madness has taken him. His fall continues, however, when he does not confess to the Fellowship what has happened. It is only with his last breath that he confesses to Aragorn that he tried to take the Ring from Frodo and that he has paid.

The Ring works on Boromir's weakness, pushing him to choose to take it. Boromir is a soldier and a Captain of Minas Tirith. His "world-view" is in terms of the defence of his City and the defeat of its enemy. He seeks a weapon to achieve those goals, and the Ring presents itself. But the insidious nature of the Ring is that it also works upon Boromir's pride. Not only will it be a weapon to put the hosts of Mordor to flight, but also it will enable him to assume power as a King. But overall, the Ring will give him the power of Command. The free will that Boromir can exercise in yielding to that temptation will result in him depriving others of free will, for clearly the power of Command is the power to compel obedience. A command is not a request, giving the receiver a choice. It dictates a course of action, with sanctions should obedience not follow. We can graphically see the steps of Boromir's fall as temptation grips him, and he finally yields to the destructive power of temptation - he is prepared to use force to take the Ring.

Yet we see the other side, for Boromir is redeemed, in that he acknowledges to himself his wrongdoing. Yet his is a tragic realisation, for his wrong choice has been manifested in destructive action which cannot be undone. It is only by his death that he can wipe the slate clean, and in dying the heroic death can he say confidently that he has paid for his sin, and the payment is complete and redemption may follow.

Boromir's temptation, choice and fall may be summed up in Aragorn's words,

    "In Minas Tirith they endure the East Wind, but they do not ask it for tidings. But now Boromir has taken his road, and we must make haste to choose our own" [126]

Secondly there is Frodo's choice to use the Ring. Horrified by Boromir's aggression and his hideous aspect, Frodo puts on the Ring and flees. He runs to the summit of Amon Hen, and there, on the Hill of the Eye of the Men of Numenor, and with the enhanced power of perception that the Ring gives him, he sees the world in turmoil;

    "At first he could see little. He seemed to be in a world of mist in which there were only shadows: the Ring was upon him. Then here and there the mist gave way and he saw many visions." [127]

It is at this point that Frodo's real problem begins. He has put on the Ring despite Gandalf's warning not to use it. The Ring remains on him, and begins to work on him. And at the same time it calls out to its Master. Once Frodo has seen the world of destruction which Sauron has set in motion, and he sets his eyes on Barad-dur, all hope leaves him. The Eye seeks him out, and as it does so, the two powers strive within him.

    "He heard himself crying out: Never, Never! Or was it: Verily I come, I come to you? He could not tell Then as a flash from some other point of power there came to his mind another thought: Take it off! Take it off! Fool, take it off! Take off the Ring!
    The two powers strove in him. For a moment, perfectly balanced between their piercing points, he writhed, tormented. Suddenly he was aware of himself again. Frodo, neither the Voice nor the Eye: free to choose and with one remaining instant in which to do so. He took the Ring off his finger." [128]

We later find out that Gandalf has interposed himself, and it is Gandalf who suggests to Frodo to take off the Ring. But the use of the two conflicting powers demonstrates Evil and Good vying to influence choice. Evil attempts to compel. Good clears the way for the exercise of free will. Gandalf does not compel Frodo to take off the Ring. Rather he allows Frodo the moment to exercise free will. The conflict that goes on within Frodo is the conflict that every person faces when required to exercise free will in the face of temptation, and in this sense Tolkien is painting a universal picture for us. If Frodo does not take off the Ring, the Eye will seek him out and the Ring will be lost. At the same time, Frodo himself will be lost, and will fall under the sway of Evil. So it is in every case when temptation presents itself.

That the temptation takes place on a high hill is significant too. Christ's temptation in the wilderness took place on a high place when the Tempter offered him the kingdoms of the world and again, the solitary nature of the conflict indicates to us that temptation and the exercise of free will and the choice for good is an individual trial on every occasion.

4.3.2. What happens when the wrong choice is made

Clearly the wrong choice results in a fall, or opens the door for an evil result. I have already observed this in the examination of Boromir's choice. The positive choices that can be made are exemplified when Faramir rejects the Ring when he reiterates his comment "Not if I found it on the highway would I take it." [129]

The positive choice for good is best exemplified in the way in which the Ring is obtained or held in the first place. Bilbo's finding of the Ring is not tainted, because he exercised pity when he had the chance to slay Gollum

    "Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not top strike without need. And he has been well rewarded Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity........My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many." [130]

In this way, Bilbo is able to avoid coming under the power of the Ring. The effect of the wrong choice when Bilbo came by the Ring received a blunter expression in earlier drafts. Gandalf says;

    "Pity! It was pity that prevented him. And he could not do so, without doing wrong. It was against the rules. If he had done so he would not have had the ring, the ring would have had him at once. He might have been a wraith on the spot." [131]

Thus it is clear in this rather unsubtle passage that the rightness of choice of action is an essential imperative of the Tolkien cosmos. When Gandalf refers to "the rules" he is clearly talking about the immutable laws that govern action within Middle-earth.

Frodo's acceptance of the burden is also coloured by a particular choice that he makes;

    "'I must keep the Ring and guard it, at least for the present, whatever it may do to me.'
    'Whatever it may do, it will be slow, slow to evil if you keep it with that purpose,' said Gandalf." [132]

By taking that position, the evil object will be slow to taint the holder. To have chosen a less laudable goal would have been a wrong choice, and demonstrates not only the importance of the right choice, but the importance of a clean motive for the choice as well. A similar motive is clear at Imladris once the Council of Elrond has decided that the Ring must be sent to the fire. Frodo announces "I will take the Ring ....though I do not know the way." [133] Frodo accepts that the Ring must be destroyed and that such is the correct motive. He holds the Ring and has accepted its burden, at least as far as Imladris. He announces that he will continue to shoulder the burden, and act as the agent for the Good end, although he does not know the way in the sense that he is unaware of the road that he must take to get to Mount Doom, and in the wider sense that he is unaware of whatever trials that he will undergo on that journey. He demonstrates the heroic aspect of the exercise of free will which allows a person to accept whatever burden may follow from a difficult but morally and ethically correct decision. And once again, in the confrontation with Evil, he demonstrates that every such confrontation is an individual and personal one.

The issue of choice and its significance is crystal clear when Frodo is at the Cracks of Doom. It is interesting to see how this concept developed. In Sauron Defeated - Mount Doom, Frodo was first to say "But I cannot do what I have come to do. I will not do it." Christopher Tolkien's comment was as follows

    "Frodo's words 'But I cannot do what I have come to do' were change subsequently on the B-text to 'But I do not choose now to do what I have come to do.' I do not think that the difference is very significant, since it was already a central element in the outlines that Frodo would choose to keep the Ring himself; the change in the words does no more than emphasise that he fully willed his act." [134]

With respect I disagree. Although Tolkien may have intended to have Frodo choose not to destroy the Ring, the use of the word "cannot" would have destroyed the issue of the exercise of free will, in that by saying that he cannot, Frodo would have meant "I am not able" and the clear inference is that there is an external influence upon his mind that is interfering with his free will.

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