By Matt Gordon
This morning I had a text from a proud friend. His son had chosen a Halloween costume to this friend’s liking—or perhaps the costume had chosen him. It was Frodo Baggins from Lord of the Rings.
I smiled at the text, walked away from it, but couldn’t shake the sin.
What I am referencing is one interpretation of Tolkien’s epic which posits that the magic ring of power represents sin—a sort of severing thought, and its subsequent desires and behaviors, from goodness and from God, the Being from which goodness flows through time, space, and eternity. The ring is the contrary manifestation of this goodness, a wicked perversion that is subtle and progressive, claiming more and more of a soul with each passing day.
The way in which this works in the tale is powerful in its wretchedness and accuracy. The ring, like Sirens, calls out to any journeyman in its proximity. It woos; it entices. It chisels away at willpower, begging to be worn, an acceptance. In western marriage, we exchange vows and a ring is a sign of that vow, a physical representation of sacred promise. So it is in this instance too—one slips the ring on, a promise made to eroding evil.
And what happens then? Well, invisibility. This too is interesting—mostly for its dire precision. For sin is forever done in secret. It might be a secret between accomplices in some heist; a slinking off of lovers in salacious affair; a company board winking their way from forthrightness to fraud; or the lone individual privately practicing pipedreams of lust and conquest and comeuppance, fueled by greed and jealousy and rage. One slips on the ring and disappears. Alone and in the dark, the soul wanders but doesn’t find the footing of solid ground.
It brings forth to mind the early biblical declaration: “It is not good for man to be alone.” Functionally, this is a reality in pre-fall Eden. But its truth holds sway east of Eden as well—Ecclesiastes hails, “Two are better than one.” In the company of trusted others, there is light which produces visibility. One can be seen and known, and their deeds can be too. By those deeds the heart pours forth, for out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks and the body acts. Hence a great paradox in the title of Tolkien’s first installment emerges: The Fellowship of the Ring. Remove the fellowship, and just sin remains.
Finally, the awful progression—what happens to one who slides the ring on? Well, very little, it seems. At first. Early on, there is still fight left in the wearer. The person wises up or comes to her senses, reentering the visible world, coming to the light, and renouncing forever the deeds of the dark. And the resolve lasts . . . until it doesn’t. Self-help, mantras, makeshift token economies, all of these give the illusion of control, but then change or fear or distress comes along and the old creature comfort is taken up once more—the ring is grasped, held, and once more slowly slid on finger, a vow renewed. Each sinister thought begins to feel less sinister; every known “thou shalt not” shifts like a shadow to a “thou maybe should not” or “thou can but only once more” to the eventual, “thou can because . . .” We march out a litany of defenses and justifications. Pretty soon east finds west, what was once clearly up and decidedly down is not so certain, and reality itself is blurred, traded out for a dim place—the light of God snuffed for the opportunity to bow to the god of self. This journey becomes easier and easier, and pretty soon it is no journey at all, for one does not sojourn in a land of residence; we no longer commute to the island we’ve come to inhabit.
Halloween season is upon us, and many of us will don masks and costumes, hiding our true selves from neighbors and friends, temporarily disappearing. Among us will be at least one little Frodo Baggins trotting about. Perhaps that is a welcome reminder. That the allure of isolating sin is wooing each of us. But in our fellowship and in the light of our God, we have the power to remove mask, to be seen and known and loved, and to claim a power beyond a worldly ring, a power no fires can unmake.