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.
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.