Negative Desire: The One Ring

As my research and exploration into Tolkien’s legendarium in relation to René Girard’s mimetic theory advances, I am repeatedly bombarded with instance after instance of areas where the two support each other and offer mutual explanation. Narrowing this summer of research down to a thirty-page paper may prove to be the hardest task of my college career. I find myself fascinated by each consecutive moment of sudden, illuminating understanding of Tolkien’s Middle-earth brought on by studying Girard’s theories, and honestly, I’d like to write much more than thirty pages on each of these discoveries. But not only is that a task far too great for a single summer, it might also be boring to anyone but myself and a very small handful of like-minded Tolkien enthusiasts. Alas.

Currently, I am caught up in the interplay of negative and positive desires within Middle-earth. Each of these concepts is huge–I’ll focus here on negative desire for the sake of (relative) brevity within this post. But first: to summarize briefly what is meant by negative desire.

In his book Evolution and Conversion, Girard writes, “If desire is only mine, I will always desire the same things.” Desire can only become something different than mere instinct when a model is introduced–a figure exhibiting desire for an object, and thus inciting the subject to also desire it. In other words, we desire objects because we see others desiring them. This can quickly turn to rivalry. If subject and model are not part of the same social sphere, the joint desire for the object turns the subject’s desire either to extreme devotion or hatred towards the model–a mediated, external model of desire. Conversely, if the model and the subject are on the same social plane and can actively compete for and deprive each other of the object, the triangle of desire turns to one of rivalry–a mirrored, internal model of negative desire.

[diagrams based on those by Rebecca Fox]
[diagrams based on those by Rebecca Fox]
Girard labels this negative desire, this battle to possess an object, as “acquisitive,”  saying, “acquisitive mimesis divides by leading two or more individuals to converge on one and the same object with a view to appropriating it” (Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World). Thus, acquisitive negative desire, desire which causes rivalry, violence, scapegoating, and undifferentiation in a community, is brought about by the presence of a limited object, an object which is desired by many, but only possessable by one. The greatest example of this in Middle-earth during the Third Age is Sauron’s One Ring.

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

The One Ring is the most powerful and intentionally magical object in Middle-earth during the time of The Lord of the Rings. This Ring is the cause of violence, bloodshed, anger, and the loss of free will and individuality among all who come into contact with it. It is coveted by Men, feared by Elves, mistrusted by Dwarves, and prized above all else by its maker, Sauron himself. The Ring is the ultimate object of desire in Middle-earth during Sauron’s rule in Mordor, and it is inscribed with words of rivalry, domination, and mimetic victory. With his Ring, Sauron sets himself up as ruler over all Middle-earth, embracing the title of Dark Lord and declaring himself the ultimate model.

In the process of forming the Ring, Sauron let a part of his strength, his will, pass into it. Thus, when the people of Middle-earth come into contact with the Ring, they lose their ability to choose their model of desire, because the Ring forces its own model, Sauron, on them. Even with Sauron himself absent or far distant, the Ring carries with it a mediator, model, and rival, which causes any relationship had between the Ring and anyone coming into contact with it to be one of mimetic rivalry.

This is what causes the Ring to have so much power. Sauron stands as perpetual model, and though one other than Sauron may possess the Ring, nevertheless, this subject is not able to remove the Ring entirely from the model. The Ring is perpetually connected with its maker. Girard writes,

Only mimetic desire can be free, can be genuine desire, human desire, because it must choose a model more than the object itself…It is this very mobility of desire, its mimetic nature…that makes us capable of adaptation, that gives the possibility to learn and to evolve (Evolution and Conversion 58).

The ability to choose one’s model of desire is vitally important in order for free will to exist. The Ring removes this capacity for choice, as it carries its own model of desire with it in the form of Sauron’s will invested in it.

Sauron’s embodied will in the Ring also causes its bearers to lose their individuality. Gollum fantasizes about becoming “Lord Smeagol,” stronger than the Ringwraiths, if he had the Ring (Tolkien, Lord of the Rings). Similarly, when Frodo offers the Ring to Galadriel, she refuses to touch it, saying,

“In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!” (Tolkien, Lord of the Rings 356).

Gandalf too refuses to take the Ring, for similar reasons. These characters all recognize the Ring as a path towards the loss of individuality–they realize, consciously or not, that the Ring will, in the end, only twist those who bear it into another Sauron, lesser, perhaps, but just as corrupt.

Thus Sauron sets himself up as the ultimate model of desire, with the Ring as an irresistible instrument for bringing about the total rule of the Dark Lord. And yet despite this, Sauron himself is merely another imitator, a slave to another’s desire. The Vala Melkor, or Morgoth, is Sauron’s model/mediator, with Middle-earth itself as the coveted object of desire. In his creation and wielding of the One Ring, Sauron strives to become like Melkor in corrupting the work of Ilúvatar–Sauron attempts to replace Melkor as the ultimate model. Yet even Melkor is only imitating Ilúvatar, and poorly at that.

Mimesis is always a desire for another’s being, much more than it is a desire for an object. Sauron seeks to become and replace Melkor as Melkor seeks to become and replace Ilúvatar, yet both these Dark Lords believe that their being is derived from themselves alone. In offering himself as the ultimate model, Sauron declares that he is Being, the only model for the people of Middle-earth to imitate. This is absurd, for even Sauron’s existence is a gift from Ilúvatar. The sense of being, in Middle-earth, is found in a relationship with Ilúvatar, and the only way one can have this is by receiving it from him–just as our own sense of being, which we search for in imitating others, can only ultimately be found through imitation of Christ.

This is the ultimate argument against the interpretation of Tolkien’s legendarium as supporting a Manichean view of good and evil. Melkor Morgoth, the ultimate source of evil in all Arda, is only acting in imitation of Ilúvatar, striving to make Ilúvatar his rival. Yet this is impossible, for Melkor has no existence outside the will of Ilúvatar. The posturing of Melkor and Sauron as Dark Lords is powerful, but vain. Though Sauron would believe himself the master of all desires, he is not free of the great chain of negative mimesis, though there are some who may, in some capacity, be so.

That, however, is another matter for another post.


16 Comments Add yours

  1. CKG says:

    I was concentrating fiercely and was hanging on, but………you lost me at Ilúvatar (other than The Hobbit and LOTR, I obviously have not read the other 200 Tolkien books that you have). Nevertheless, this is all very interesting and stresses my brain in ways not commonly stressed. Keep up the good work……and keep striving to help us keep up with you!


    1. AnnaEstelle says:

      Apologies – I did get a little carried away there, at the end. We listened to the first third of The Silmarillion on the way to school–Ilúvatar is the ultimate God-figure of Tolkien’s legendarium, the one who instigated the Great Music in which the Valar joined and which resulted in the creation of the world. So, as Sauron (of The Lord of the Rings) strives to become or replace Melkor (the evil Vala in The Silmarillion), Melkor also is striving to become or replace Ilúvatar (the One who created Melkor and everything else in the first place). Make sense? Basically, I am just trying to point out the chain of negative mimesis that is going on, proving that Sauron (or even Melkor) is not the ultimate model or master of desire, evil or no. It all leads back to, and gains its existence from, Ilúvatar in the end.


  2. EmilyAbroad says:

    Super interesting. Did Girard write anything on the sexual/erotic sphere–how desire would play out according to his model in that area? That would really interest me. Like, would he say that sexual desire for a specific individual is “mere instinct,” or is there also there this modelling thing going on?


    1. AnnaEstelle says:

      I really don’t know. That’s something I’d have to look up – it’s not within the type of research and reading I have been doing. I know he talks about the difference between instinctual desire and mimetic desire (I am currently thinking of the second chapter in his Evolution and Conversion, specifically, where he briefly explains a lot of his ideas). However, I don’t know if he has written about it at length. I suppose that Girard would call sexual desire itself an instinct, but the sexual desire for a specific individual a mimetic/imitated desire – one in which there is a very clear object, who can be and often is an object of pretty stiff rivalry.


  3. Churl says:

    So I am sensing the next post will be on Tom Bombadil, whom no one has caught? :)

    I would here note too that a thirty page paper you can’t keep to thirty pages is a great excuse for an MA thesis…


    1. EmilyAbroad says:

      Or heck, the start of your doctorate dissertation. :)


    2. AnnaEstelle says:

      Perhaps – though a post on Tom Bombadil will be tough to write. He’s a very tricky character to wrap one’s head around. I’ve always been fascinated by the number of theories out there on just what manner of fellow he is.

      As for the MA thesis, you’re quite right. I’m beginning the process of seriously looking at graduate programs this summer. It’s a good deal intimidating, and I am not a fan of decisions – especially big ones! But it’s also rather exciting…=)


      1. Churl says:

        Yes, he is tricky to figure out. I was once quite miffed that he was left out of the films, but in reading the books to my son this year, I was kind of glad that Jackson didn’t take the opportunity to ruin him (don’t know how you feel about the LOTR films – I feel they are okay as films, misinterpretations if they are trying to be what Tolkien meant – and surprisingly good considering what Jackson is capable of, given what we have seen him do to The Hobbit).

        It can be scary pursuing MA work, but the trick I think is have a very clear initial proposal – which I imagine you will be good at writing, given your writing skills. That at least can get you through MA and PhD – unfortunately it doesn’t work in quite so straightforward a way on the job market because there are politics and problems for introverts. If it is not to intrusive to ask, what programs are you looking at?


        1. AnnaEstelle says:

          I’m simultaneously relieved and disappointed that he was left out of the films. I don’t think anyone could create a satisfactory Bombadil for film, so I’m glad Jackson didn’t try. But boy, I’d love to see it if someone did. I love the LotR films dearly, though you’re right that they don’t capture what Tolkien was doing. I’m mostly just glad that there are films that aren’t utterly bad. I think sometimes movies can be very instrumental in waking people up to Wonder. I know that I would never have read The Silmarillion if I hadn’t seen the LotR films – they woke me up to the vastness of Middle-earth.
          In terms of an MA, I haven’t really started looking too specifically at universities yet, as I am still wavering between Medieval Studies and Library Science – Library Science because it would set me up for an actual job, and Medieval Studies because that’s where my real interest lies most heavily. I’d really like to go to the Medieval Institute at Western, but I am also looking at other universities. I haven’t gotten far yet in my search. If you have any suggestions, I would love to hear them!


          1. Churl says:

            Yes, you’re of course right – sometimes I’m too snobbish when it comes to movie adaptations. And you’re right to in the fact that they can sometimes tip the scales in terms of further engagement with things.

            Suggestions…by Western I take it you mean WMU? That would generally be a good place because of the Congress every year – don’t know a lot about the program but it is probably good. Some of my advice would depend on what kind of medievalist you want to be – OE, ME, etc. I know more OE people than ME people. It also depends on what sort of support systems you need e. g. big university vs. small university, medieval studies vs. something through an English department, secular vs. Christian.

            It is true there would be more jobs with library science – but if you can get funding for further education, it is worthwhile in its own right – rather like having a full time job that only lasts six years and at the end of which you get a degree or degrees. Put another way, I don’t regret having done it, though I have only had intermittent teaching posts and am currently employed (annoyingly) as an ad copy writer – because it is a form of creative writing, albeit the worst and one I want to get out of. And I keep working on publications etc. hoping I will eventually have a CV that can make me stand out. Of course, there are things stacked against me – OCD, depression, and extreme introversion that make me (I hope) not the typical fate of the Humanities scholar. But I can say it is worth it, even in the midst of finding the job market difficult.


            1. AnnaEstelle says:

              I haven’t thought about they type of medievalist I’d like to be – that is a very good question that I will have to consider. It’s quite true that education for its own sake is a worthwhile thing. That is the view I am operating under, in looking at graduate school. It’s taken me a while to come to terms with it, though, coming from a family where money doesn’t grow on trees. Thank you for your encouragement!


  4. taethiel says:

    You are so smart. This all makes sense once you explain it, but I’d be lost after a few pages if I tried exploring it myself. ;) You would do so well in grad school, my dear. I’m glad you’re considering it.


    1. AnnaEstelle says:

      Thank you. ;) I am also glad I am considering grad school – it’s a big step forward from where I was freshman year (i.e. scared silly by the idea of a bachelor’s degree, much less anything more). I do think you are quite capable of similar things, though, beloved – you just need to come meet my advisor. It’s pretty much his fault (well, his and my roommate’s) that I’m doing anything that I am now. =)



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