The Lord of the Rings and the corrupting influence of power

October 20, 2022 | By JACK BROWN
Rings of Power poster

With the recent release of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power on Amazon Prime, there has never been a better time to revisit J. R. R. Tolkien’s original novel. At its core, the story is a lesson in how power can corrupt even the best of souls, as we see reflected in the characters’ struggles with the temptation to wield the Ring.

It is unsurprising that Tolkien’s masterpiece would reflect such heavy skepticism of political power. After returning home from fighting in World War I, he witnessed with disgust the rise of communism and fascism over the course of the subsequent decades.

Some of his characters are successful in recognizing that absolute power is too dangerous to be used. Others are not.

One ring to rule them all

Throughout The Lord of the Rings, the ability of the One Ring, the weapon of the novel’s antagonist, the Dark Lord Sauron, to corrupt others is well-illustrated. Good-hearted characters such as the wizard Gandalf reject its use for fear that it will lead to tyranny. Meanwhile, we see early on how the ring twists those who fall prey to its temptations, in the frightening characters of Gollum and the Nazgûl.

It is telling that the primary goal of the protagonist, Frodo Baggins, and his companions is not to use the Ring to defeat Sauron, but to destroy it. They recognize that the Ring, and the absolute power that comes with it, cannot be used without corrupting its wielder.

Most demonstrative of the dangers of this corruption is the contrast between the characters of Boromir and Faramir.

Boromir, a noble warrior from the kingdom of Gondor, is one of Frodo’s companions in his quest to destroy the Ring. However, he quickly becomes enamored of the potential of the Ring as a weapon to defeat Sauron and save his kingdom. As a result, he attempts to take the Ring from Frodo by force. Despite his good intentions—to protect Gondor’s capital of Minas Tirith and defeat Sauron—Boromir’s desire for power ultimately corrupts him, leading him to attack one of his companions.

“I do not wish for such triumphs.”

By contrast, Faramir, Boromir’s brother, has a healthy skepticism of the use of the Ring, even for noble ends. When he meets Frodo on his travels in the novel, he quickly deduces that he is carrying the great weapon of Sauron, but, unlike his brother, he reassures Frodo that he would not take it, either for his own benefit or Gondor’s.

Recognizing that the Ring is too dangerous to be used, even to do good, he sends Frodo along to continue his quest to destroy the Ring.

The most improper job of any man

While Tolkien denied that Sauron’s realm of Mordor was intended as an allegory for the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany, the applicability of Sauron’s desire for domination and control to that of Stalin and Hitler is difficult for any reader not to see.

Tolkien’s view that the “most improper job of any man…is bossing other men” runs throughout his work. It is also an attitude that informs our work at Pacific Legal Foundation as public interest litigators for liberty.

While government officials who are hungry for power for its own sake are unfortunately all too common, much government activity throughout the country is reminiscent of Boromir’s desire to wield power to achieve one’s ends, without the recognition that this power is inherently corrupting.

From banning “love letters” in real estate transactions in the name of solving racial disparities to imposing gender quotas on the boards of publicly traded companies in an effort to remedy past gender bias, many well-intentioned government officials have forgotten the age-old adage of the English writer Lord Acton that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Imposing one’s will on others by force, even with good intentions, can cause real harm, and any government powerful enough to impose that will can be used by one’s political opponents just as easily.

Those of us who fight for individual liberty and equality before the law must always strive to reduce the corrupting influence of power in society.

Like Faramir, we should not “love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory.” We must instead do our utmost to protect “that which they defend,” the classically liberal principles of liberty and justice for all. When the opportunity for people to be corrupted by power is limited, one man need not be afraid of another.”