Symbols – codes of meaning, used by people in their daily lives, or by authors in their writings. Tolkien’s works are also full of various symbols. Some are simple, just like those we use in our everyday lives. Some are a bit more complex. The two of the most prominent symbols, both, appear in “The Lord of the Rings” as poems. The first one goes like this:
“All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
“Renewed shall be blade that was broken” – a line describing something all too familiar for a fan of fantasy. A sword. Swords have always been symbols of strength, will, power, honor and sometimes even hope. Equally a weapon and an instrument to protect those one cares about and provide for them a sword is one of the most well-known symbols of our world. So it’s not surprising that it made his way into fantasy writing. But the poem speaks of no ordinary sword. This sword is Narsil, The Red and White Flame, re-forged into Andruil, The Flame of the West, the sword that when broken by Sauron still managed to cut the Ring of the Dark Lord’s finger and destroy his power for a long time. When he returned it was this same sword that called the Men of the West to battle against the darkness of the East one last time. The legends of this sword are deeply rooted in the history of the Middle-Earth.
Another very important symbol is incorporated into the name of Tolkien’s famous novel – “The Lord of the Rings”. The symbol of a ring in Tolkien’s work and its importance was revealed during the council of Elrond, where the encryption on the One Ring was read aloud:
“Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men, doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
A ring, as a symbol, has been present in human life for as long as man can remember. It represents eternity, the ever-changing cycle of life. It is also a symbol of power – wise men, priests, bishops, kings and emperors all wore rings to symbolize their influence and strength. The One Ring is no different – it is eternal and grants its master an extremely long lifespan. Upon making it Sauron poured all his malice into it, giving it, and himself, so much more power. Thus, the One Ring, is actually as classical as a ring symbol can be!
These two symbols, the sword and the ring, are in opposition since the very beginning of “The Lord of the Rings”. The ring, in Tolkien’s works, symbolizing greed for power, abuse of it and the sword – the return of the king. In other words, the sword brings order, stability, prosperity, strength, but most importantly – hope. For only a true man, destined for the sword would wield it. Same as only Sauron could use the One Ring to its full potential. So the Ring is made for one singular purpose – to destroy all that the Sword represents.
As we know it (SPOILERS), no actual clash of Sword and Ring occurs in the story. But the tension these two symbols generate ignite some very interesting inner conflicts. One of them is Aragorn’s fear of “falling for the ring”. His ancestor, the wielder of Narsil, Isildur, had a chance to destroy the One Ring, but decided to keep it, thus allowing Sauron to come back to power. Aragorn is tempted by the same desire. This temptation becomes his ultimate test if he ever wants to ascend to the title of king.
Another interesting, yet not so much developed conflict centers around the fears of Sauron. Sauron, being a tool more than a character in “The Lord of the Rings” is a main antagonist, but that is really all we know about him. That he is out there, that he is mean, that he must be stopped. And one more thing – he is very, very scared of the Narsil and the man who will bear it. Old wounds do tend to remind of themselves, and Sauron’s wounds are no exception. He remembers very well the cursed sword that destroyed his empire, with a single slash, when it was at its highest! He is very afraid that that will happen again. Because even though he is so powerful and has lived for thousands of years, some of those without a body, he is still so very afraid of death.
A ring for Power. A sword for Hope. The two not always carry these same meanings, even in the works of Tolkien. But for the “Lord of the Rings” they came together, against each other, to spark one of the greatest tales of adventure know to fantasy literature. Now it’s time for each reader to find their own meaning of these or other symbols that Tolkien has hidden in his works. “Fly you fools!”