Why Did Sauron Make the Ring? Gandalf in Frodo’s Study at Bag End.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp 50,51

In 1949 Herbert Butterfield, Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge, published a series of lectures that he had given under the title of Christianity and History. I do not know if he had any contact with The Inklings. He was a Cambridge Professor and they were based in Oxford. But I rather think that Tolkien would have approved of Butterfield’s thoughts contained in this quotation from those lectures.


“The hardest strokes of heaven fall in history upon those who imagine that they can control things in a sovereign manner, as though they were kings of the earth, playing Providence not only for themselves but for the far future- reaching out into the future with the wrong kind of far-sightedness and gambling on a lot of risky calculations in which there must never be a single mistake.”

When I asked whether Butterfield and the Inklings could have known each other it was because it seemed to me that Butterfield could have been describing the action of Sauron in the forging of the Ring. That Sauron imagined himself, not only as king of the earth, but as the king. Sauron forged the Ring in order to achieve kingship, declaring his intent in the words that he inscribed upon it.

One Ring to rule them all.

Sauron is one who fears disorder; one for whom order is only certain when he is in absolute control. This means that all other powers, even and perhaps most especially Providence itself, must first be found and then bound in the darkness. And why the darkness? Because the light is not under his control and the light is able to penetrate even the most carefully constructed of his defences. The same goes for the unruly weather. The wind blows where it chooses and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.

And Sauron fears those who are born of the Spirit, those who are truly free, who will not bow the knee to him; and so he labours endlessly to corrupt the free and to bind them to him for ever. It is the Ringwraiths, the Nazgûl, who are the most tragic of these people. They are those who traded their freedom in exchange for power and so as Gandalf expresses it heartbreakingly, they became “shadows under his great Shadow”. It is hard to imagine any image that could convey the sense of something or someone who has less substance than a shadow within a shadow. This is the end of all who seek power and control and who grow to fear freedom above everything else. Butterfield describes Sauron so well when he speaks of one who is farsighted in the wrong way, someone who seeks to eliminate all unpredictability and risk from the future. As Butterfield puts it, someone for whom “there must never be a single mistake”.

Compare such a spirit to the astonishing risk of putting your trust in hobbits! Perhaps this is a moment to consider how great a risk this is. Later in the story Denethor, the Lord of Gondor, will declare Gandalf’s trust in hobbits as madness and the hobbits themselves as witless. Gandalf does not argue with him or try to justify his trust. His choice is the worst that could possibly have been made. Except, that is, for every other choice.

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But the same quotation from Butterfield that opened this short reflection goes on to describe the choice that Gandalf does make and the one that Frodo accepts and makes his own.

“Each of us should rather do the good that is under our noses. Those people work more wisely who seek to achieve good in their own small corner of the world and then leave the leaven to leaven the whole lump.”

This is what Gandalf and Frodo speak of on that Spring morning in the Shire. Not some vast plan to solve all the problems of Middle-earth but the decision to take one course of action. And at this point the action is only to take the Ring out of the Shire because the Dark Lord now knows that the Ring is there. The first choice to do good is very limited in its scope because at this point Frodo and, even, Gandalf himself does not know what to do next. But it is enough. The lump of dough will be leavened beyond all imagining.

(Image Below, The Fall of Sauron by Caoronach http://caoranach.deviantart.com/art/Fall-of-Sauron-349619911)


12 thoughts on “Why Did Sauron Make the Ring? Gandalf in Frodo’s Study at Bag End.

  1. These lines from Butterfield are magnificent! So much of the Middle Ages can be summed up in the quest for absolute control, from a variety of different factions, so of course this would find resonance in Tolkien’s story. Thanks for sharing this. I need to find his book!

    • Butterfield was an old fashioned conservative and highly critical of modern socialism with its belief in the state sponsored solution. I suspect that Tolkien would have agreed with him on that too. What neither of them would have had any time for was the oligarchy of robber baron capitalists who seem to have seized control of modern conservatism while pretending that they are “old school” promoting personal freedom and personal responsibility.
      And I agree with you that the hunger for power is not just a modern phenomenon but a human one going way, way, back.

  2. I’d never thought of Sauron’s goal as eliminating all risk. It’s an intriguing thought, with an obvious application in today’s world. Populations of quondam democracies seem willing to give up all sorts of power to anyone who will protect them from foreign terrorists. Disclaimer: the fact that I recently had to spend hours filling out insurance forms for the fencing club could not in any way have affected my opinions on this topic.

    • This is a moment in which I regret my inadequacy as a scholar. I have a memory of a reference somewhere in Tolkien’s writings of how, after Sauron chose not to return to Valinor for judgement at the end of the First Age, he grew increasingly unhappy about the lack of order in Middle-earth and the neglectful behaviour, as he saw it, of the Valar. Of course we see the same spirit in Saruman’s speech to Gandalf (a reference that I do remember!) when he speaks of “the high and ultimate purpose. Knowledge, Rule, Order.” I think that we even see it in Lotho Pimple’s desire to re-order the Shire. Each is a weaker imitation of the greater. Sauron first (or Morgoth, of course) then Sauron, Saruman, Lotho and even Ted Sandyman. What links them all is a rejection of Providence. A rejection of, a refusal to trust in, a wise guiding hand at work in history. I think that Butterfield is making a similar point about projects that seek to order the processes of history. I think that he is right. The willingness simply to do the good that is at hand and then to trust that the whole lump of dough will be leavened, in other words to trust to Providence, is rare I think. And it is a theme that runs right through Tolkien’s work.

  3. I hadn’t thought of Sauron’s wanting to eliminate risk either but it makes perfect sense for someone who wanted to control everyone and everything. It is those thing he could not control that undo him and even if he had overwhelmed the Free Peoples, he would still face resistance. Butterfield’s last quote is so like to Gandalf’s at the Last Debate you could hear it spoken at the end of the Third Age just as well as when Butterfield wrote about it.

    Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

    • Thank you for reminding me of Gandalf’s words in the Last Debate. I think that you are right. I hope that you have read my response to Joe’s comment. I wish that I could remember where that reference to Sauron’s desire to take control of what he saw as a disordered Middle-earth in the Second Age comes from. Hopefully one of my readers will know it.
      God bless you, Anne Marie 😊

  4. Sauron’s example just goes to show that being a perfectionist is not good. Still, if we look at the course of the events in Middle-earth in the Third Age, we see that he made a few tiny mistakes — mere oversights, as Tolkien put it. He must have had quite a lot on his plate that he managed to make them with this nature of his.

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