The symbol of power in Tolkien’s story is the One Ring. Sauron created the ring, and into it he poured much of his being, power, and will. The ring enables the wearer to enslave the minds of others, but when anyone other than Sauron uses the ring, it gradually enslaves and destroys that person. It is clear that Tolkien saw the lust for power as a dangerous temptation. He writes in one letter: “The most improper job of any man, even saints (who at any rate were at least unwilling to take it on), is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity.”
How, then, is evil to be fought? If there is any principle that is clear in the writings of Tolkien, it is that we cannot fight evil with evil. We cannot use the ring as a weapon. Tolkien said, “You can’t fight the Enemy with his own Ring without turning into an Enemy.” Even peering into the ways of the enemy is dangerous. Elrond explains, “It is perilous to study too deeply the arts of the Enemy, for good or for ill.” The fall of the wizard Saruman illustrates this danger. He studied the arts of Sauron for many years and gradually developed his own evil lust for power, a lust that led to his fall.
Although evil cannot be completely eradicated in the present age, we can and must combat it whenever and wherever we are. As Gandalf tells Frodo: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” In Tolkien’s story, the primary means of overcoming evil is through love. This love manifests itself in many ways, but in The Lord of the Rings, the most important ways in which it manifests itself are through the trust and self-sacrifice involved in friendship and through acts of kindness, mercy, and pity. The friendship between Sam and Frodo is at the heart of the story. But the friendship that develops between all of the nine companions in the fellowship is equally important. Ralph Wood is surely correct when he says, “Their friendship is the one thing that unites them at the beginning, sustains them throughout their long ordeal, and enables the success of their Quest at the end.”
The love of each person in the fellowship for the others is demonstrated in the sacrifices the members of the fellowship make for one another. Gandalf sacrifices himself for the others in Moria. Boromir is killed in an effort to save the hobbits Merry and Pippin. Aragorn and his army intend to sacrifice themselves at the black gate of Mordor to help Sam and Frodo achieve their goal. Ultimately, Frodo sacrifices himself for the fellowship and for all of Middle-earth. As he explains to Sam: “I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.” As Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
The fellowship also receives acts of love and friendship, receiving unexpected help from others at every step of their quest. From Farmer Maggot and Mr. Butterbur to Treebeard and Ghan-buri-Ghan, the biblical principle of hospitality, kind treatment of strangers, and love for sojourners is repeatedly demonstrated (Lev. 19:34; Deut. 10:19). In the end, the combination of many small and seemingly inconsequential choices for good proves to have enormous consequences. An act of love and pity shown to the creature Gollum by Bilbo ends up determining the fate of Middle-earth.
At one point in the Lord of the Rings, Sam talks to Frodo about their trials. He tells Frodo that he used to think the people in the old stories went out looking for adventure, “but that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered.” In the tales that mattered, people had the chance to turn back, but they pressed on even when they weren’t sure how the story would end. Then Sam says, “I wonder what sort of tale we’ve fallen into?”
As Christians, we know what sort of tale we are in, and it is the tale that really matters because it is true. It is the story of redemption by the ultimate act of love and self-sacrifice, the death of Jesus Christ for His people. Our tale is not a fantasy. Our tale is found in the Bible. It, too, involves an ancient battle between good and evil, but there is no doubt about the outcome of our story. Satan will be destroyed. Good will triumph. The King will return, and, in a manner of speaking, everything sad will come untrue.