J.R.R. Tolkien, The Book of Lost Tales I
Now the Elves made many rings; but secretly Sauron made One Ring to rule all the others, and their power was bound up with it, to be subject wholly to it and to last only so long as it too should last.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion
The conflict between good and evil has been around in literature for centuries, and Tolkien was no stranger to the fact, so it is not surprising that he decided to use the mentioned eternal conflict in one of the most popular fictional settings of modern fantasy, Middle-earth. However, in Tolkien’s universe being evil does not necessarily mean that someone was born that way. In this mentioned fictional universe, the negative traits, such as malice or greed, can even stem from the mere possession of a certain item, which corrupts its owner, while the person affected by the corruption is oblivious of the fact. There are various items that would fit the description of a corruptive item in Middle-earth, and this article will deal with them in detail in the following lines.
The Silmarils, or the Great Jewels as they are also known, are three magnificent jewels created by one of the greatest craftsmen of all time, Fëanor, during the Elder Days. He created them by combining various gems immersed in a phosphoric substance he gathered in urns with the light of the Two Trees of Valinor, which gave light to the land of the Valar. Upon combining the ingredients mentioned, he poured them into a perfect glass, thus creating the three jewels of his own, which he named the Silmarilli. These jewels shone on their own, and are described as the most beautiful jewels of the time. Just like the Two Trees of Valinor, their creation could never be duplicated. The Silmarils were hallowed by the Valier, Varda, also known as Elbereth, or the Lady of the Stars so that any impure hand touching the jewels would be burned and withered. Since the Silmarils were so beautiful and adored by their creator, they were bound to be noticed by someone else, and so it was. They were noticed by Morgoth, the greatest and eldest of the Ainur, which urged Fëanor to hide the jewels, in an attempt to protect them from Morgoth. However, the hiding of the jewels pushed Fëanor into arrogance and greed. Despite all the efforts, Morgoth stole the Silmarils, and this consequentially led to Fëanor and his sons swear an Oath, which bound them to hatred and revenge upon anyone who got hold of the jewels. It is evident that the beauty of the Silmarils corrupts every person who comes in contact with them, and this corruption led to many disastrous events, such as the exile of Fëanor and his sons, the burning of the ships at Losgar and many others. After a quarrel with his ally Ungoliant, Morgoth placed the Silmarils in his Iron Crown. It was thought that the jewels were lost forever, until Beren appeared and retrieved one of the jewels from the crown as the fulfillment of a quest given to him by King Thingol, in order to marry his daughter, Lúthien. The retrieved Silmaril eventually became a star in the sky, signaling hope. Fëanor’s sons, Maedhros and Maglor, came into possession of the remaining two Silmarils. But, tainted and corrupted by their own Oath, they were burned by the very things they coveted the most. Maedhros cast himself and the jewel into the fiery abyss, and Maglor threw his jewel into the Sea, and thus the Silmarils were lost forever.
It is evident that the Silmarils enslave their owners in a certain way, and cause them to do unimaginable evil deeds in order to protect or keep the Silmarils. The irony lies in the very desire to own or protect the Silmarils corrupts their owners in a way that renders them unable to enjoy the jewels since their hands are impure. Even though the Silmarils were corruptive, they are far from being the most corruptive items in Middle-earth, since that title already belongs to the Rings of Power and the One Ring.
The Rings of Power and the One Ring
The greatest triumph of craftsmanship accomplished during the Second Age would surely be the forging of the Rings of Power. They were forged by the Noldorin smiths of Eregion during the Second Age, between the years 1500 and 1590. During the Second Age, Sauron often assumed a fair appearance in order to deceive other beings and use them for his evil deeds. The creation of the Rings of Power was one of his mentioned deceits, during which he went by the name of Annatar, meaning the Lord of Gifts, and seduced a group of Elves who openly disobeyed the Valar and were therefore banned from entering Valinor ever again. Sauron, or Annater, as he was known during this event, took advantage of their ban and promised to teach the Elves the knowledge necessary to make Middle-earth as beautiful as Valinor, in exchange for their help. They accepted his offer, due to their lust for power and began their work. They began by forging some lesser rings, but around the year 1500 in the Second Age, they began forging the Great Rings, also known as the Rings of Power. Sauron aided them in the creation of both the lesser rings and the Great Rings, with help from a Noldorin Elf of the house of Fëanor, son of Curufin the Crafty, named Celebrimbor. He was also deceived by Sauron’s claims to be an ally, and therefore aided him in the forging of the Rings. However, Celebrimbor soon saw through Sauron’s deceits and plans and used the knowledge acquired from him to forge, in secret, additional three Rings, that were never touched by Sauron, in order to avoid his influence. Celebrimbor named the Three Rings Vilya, the Ring of Airs, which bore a great blue stone, and was passed on to Elrond by Gil-galad; Nenya, the Ring of Waters, with a white stone of great beauty, always in the keeping of Lady Galadriel; and Narya, the Ring of Fire, with a great red stone, surrendered to Gandalf the Grey by Círdan the Shipwright. These Rings Celebrimbor gave to the Elves, so as to keep them protected from Sauron. Unfortunately, Sauron found out about what he perceived as Celebrimbor’s betrayal and takes him captive after the destruction of Eregion. Sauron already retrieved the Nine Rings of Power, but his mind is set on finding the other Rings of Power, so he decided to torture Celebrimbor in an attempt to find out the location of the remaining Rings. Celebrimbor only told him about the Seven Rings, since he deemed them less powerful than the Three. After realizing that Celebrimbor will never reveal the location of the Three, Sauron has him killed. After retrieving the Nine and the Seven Rings, Sauron distributed them to Men and Dwarves, believing that those races are most susceptible to the influence of power. Men quickly proved Sauron’s beliefs to be true since they succumbed to his influence and became completely enslaved by the Nine, while the Dwarves used their Rings for hoarding gold, which attracted the Dragons and resulted in four Rings being lost and three retrieved by Sauron.
Around the year 1600 in the Second Age, Sauron secretly forged another ring in the fires of Orodruin, or Mount Doom, whose main purpose was to gain dominion over all the other Rings of Power, and to bind their powers with it, so as to subject them entirely to its will. The Ring became known by many names, but his most notorious one was the One Ring. The One Ring was overwhelmingly powerful since Sauron’s main goal was to control the Elven rings, hence he needed a ring with surpassing potency. However, the Elves immediately felt the presence of the One Ring upon its creation, and they decided to never use their Rings again, in order to avoid Sauron’s corruptive influence, making him unable to locate the Three Rings. The one Ring was different in appearance to all the other Rings of Power. It was a round gold band, which bore no gem, and it adjusted its size according to the hand of the bearer. When exposed to great heat, there appeared an inscription on the Ring in Black Speech, the language of Mordor: “Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul, ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul”, meaning, in Common Tongue: “One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the Darkness bind them”. The One Ring was taken from Sauron by Isildur, and after passing many hands, came to Frodo, which triggers the events described in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The One Ring was especially powerful, and it allowed the bearer to manipulate the bearers of the lesser Rings. Another instance of the One Ring’s power is visible in the longevity it provided for its bearers, but, as always, that longevity comes with a price. The power of the One Ring eventually consumes and enslaves the bearers, and even their physical appearance changes, as can be seen with Sméagol, or Gollum. The One Ring was eventually destroyed, after numerous perils, by Frodo, who cast it along with Gollum in the fires of Mount Doom.
Although the Rings of Power proved to have a corruptive influence on their bearers, it is visible that the degree of corruption differs with each race. The reason the Elves were completely immune to Sauron’s influence is the fact that the Three Rings were never touched by Sauron, making him unable to control their bearers. The One Ring is the most powerful of the Rings of Power since its sole purpose was complete control and enslavement of the bearers of the lesser Rings. The One Ring, if Frodo didn’t destroy it, could have single-handedly destroyed the entire Middle-earth, by spreading Sauron’s influence and malice all over the realm, much like Morgoth’s darkness in the First Age. The influence of the Rings of Power and the One Ring varies with each race, so it is difficult to determine how corruptive the very items are, but it is clear that they have immense power and, if wielded by a weaker being, have an unimaginable corruptive ability in them.
Corruptive items that must not be omitted in the discussion of corruptive items in Middle-earth are most certainly the palantírs or Seeing –stones of Eldamar. The eight Seeing-stones were forged by Fëanor during the Elder Days. The palantírs are described as perfectly round spheres, varying in diameter, and very heavy. They were mainly used as Seeing-stones since they enabled their owners to see far and wide, but, as always, there were certain limitations. Some of the lesser palantírs could not see into the great distance, and many palantírs display only what is near another palantír. Only those strong enough can use the palantírs whenever they wish and point them in any direction. Since the visions seen in the palantírs could hardly be controlled, it was said that they can only be used properly by the heirs of Elendil. During the events of the War of the Ring, the palantírs were especially dangerous to use, because they were all under Sauron’s control. They were scattered all over Middle-earth, in strategic places, where Sauron could gain the most from controlling them. The Master-stone was kept in the Tower of Avallónë, the Lonely Isle of the shores of Valinor. Three palantírs were located in Annúminas, Amon Sûl, and the Tower Hills in Arnor, the three locations known as the Númenorean realms-in-exile, and the remaining four were kept in Osgiliath, Orthanc, Minas Ithil and Minas Anor. Denethor II, the Steward of Gondor, frequently used one of the palantírs, and with time it corrupted him, he became paranoid and obsessed with acquiring a vast knowledge, to surpass his father, and even Gandalf. However, the palantír Denethor II used followed him into his death, when he set himself on fire, still clutching it in his hands. The only one who could wield the palantír and use it properly was Aragorn, the heir of Elendil.
Unlike the Rings of Power and the One Ring, the corruption caused by the palantírs is indirect, as with the Silmarils. The power given to the owners, the ability to see far and wide, breeds lust, and those two combined make for a destructive amount of corruption. The palantírs are most certainly dangerous tools and should not be used lightly.
The corruptive item that rarely comes to mind when corruption is mentioned is a beautiful white jewel mentioned in The Hobbit, the Arkenstone. This is possible because its corruption only extended to Dwarves since the Arkenstone was considered to be the greatest treasure of all the Dwarf-hoards. It is also called the Heart of the Mountain, or the Arkenstone of Thráin. The jewel was lost, that is left behind, in Erebor during Smaug’s attack on Erebor. Not much is known about the Arkenstone, but the corruption it caused was visible in Thorin Oakenshield, who almost killed his friend Bilbo Baggins, for taking the Arkenstone to Thranduil and Bard the Bowman, in an attempt to reconcile two sides and prevent the Battle of the Five Armies. His attempt failed, and Thorin makes Bilbo leave Erebor. The Arkenstone was buried with Thorin Oakenshield after he died of the wounds suffered in the battle, since he was the King under the Mountain, even for a short while.
Much like the palantírs and the Silmarils, the Arkenstone does not corrupt its owners directly. However, combined with the Dwarvish lust for gold, it results in corruption that can and did, lead to terrible consequences.
There are many corruptive items in Middle-earth, and every item differs in the degree of corruption it causes. However, since Tolkien’s world is never black-and-white, the degree of corruption also depends greatly on the person owning or bearing, the said items, meaning that the power we should all crave is the power of will, to fight back the corruptive influence of anything that comes into our possession. Sadly, it is very difficult to resist the influence, and sometimes it can lead to destruction and ruin. The stories of these corruptive items teach us that power always comes with a price, and that price must be paid eventually, possibly with catastrophic consequences. Therefore remember, no matter how tempting the offer may seem, there is always a catch.