As, quite frankly, the greatest film ever made and the greatest book ever written, The Lord of the Rings has many themes running through its narratives. As yet, I have not come across the idea of the One Ring as a metaphor for consumerism. Tolkien explicitly stated that the tales were not written as metaphors for anything specific, but that does not mean we cannot indulge in doing so. Therefore, in this article, I examine the One Ring through the lens of consumerism to make visible some of the potential for this analysis within a sociological frame.
What is Consumerism?
Consumerism is ultimately an ideology of consumption. Consumption refers to the buying of objects and services and the way in which we use these items and services. Economies are built around people consuming. Consumption also forms a central purpose of life within capitalist societies. Lebow (1955: 7) illuminates:
Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption. The measure of social status, of social acceptance, of prestige, is now to be found in our consumptive patterns.
Travel forward 70 years to the present day and we find ourselves in an extreme version of Lebow’s description. Patterns and rituals of consumption, both tangible and intangible, now shape society and culture. Companies spend vast amounts of money trying to manufacture want for their goods, to tempt us into buying, to communicate the value of the item, and to convince us of the status-enhancing properties of their wares. Bauman (2005: 92) argues:
Consumerism is not about the satisfaction of desires, but about arousing desire for ever more desires – and preferably the kinds of desires that cannot in principle be quenched.
The needs and requirements of consumption dominate us through not only our basic needs of food, water, warmth, and shelter but also through our social needs and our identities.
What is the One Ring?
For those who have not viewed the film or read the book (seriously, why?), the One Ring was an item of power forged by the Dark Lord Sauron in the Second Age of Middle-Earth. The races of Dwarves, Elves, and Men were given their own Rings of Power. However, Sauron crafted the One Ring to dominate and control the other Rings of Power and thus deceived them all. The main plot of the Lord of the Rings revolves around Frodo and the fellowship returning the One Ring to Mount Doom in Mordor to destroy it. Throughout the story, numerous characters desire the One Ring for its perceived powers, whether with good intentions or not. So, what are the connections between the One Ring and consumerism?
A core feature of both consumerism and The One Ring is status. The uniqueness and, therefore, rarity of the One Ring as a one-of-a-kind product makes it highly coveted. Possessing such a unique item could automatically bestow a sense of exclusivity and status upon the owner. Owning an item with such a rich history and mythical power would capture attention and curiosity, automatically elevating the owner’s status and perceived importance. This is something we certainly see in the collector’s world, where a given item not only has historical importance but also has an effect on the individual’s self-perception. As Herrmann (2009: 266) states:
Self-aggrandizement is very much with us today. Among the recent Titans of collecting, there is a quartet of highly competitive and vastly wealthy individuals, each endowed not only with a most perceptive eye when it came to a choice of art or artefacts but each also had fundamentally brilliant commercial talents, and for each of them collecting became an overwhelming obsession in which self-glorification became an inbuilt factor
Further, possessing the One Ring brings the wearer into being associated with great and powerful people. Surrounded by wizards, kings, and leading figures, the individual would become closely linked to these social groups. The wearer would come to be as important, if not more so, than these other high-status figures. Similarly, owning a given consumer item can grant the possessor the illusion of status or even convince them that they too have some kind of status based on their material possessions. This can be based on the ways in which meaning is drawn from the consumer item (see Richins, 1994).
Possessing the One Ring could be seen as a symbol of achievement or accomplishment. Gaining possession of it may have meant surpassing others in order to acquire the One Ring or perhaps overcoming some kind of significant challenge that others could not. Similarly, for example, if we view education as a consumer item (which it is under the neoliberal order), then attaining a certain level of education can also be considered in the same way. This could be getting the most GCSEs, a first at undergraduate, or even a PhD. Either way, the One Ring and educational achievement could be seen as enhancing the owner’s status as someone who has accomplished notable feats.
Like status, the One Ring is associated with immense power and the ability to dominate others. In a consumer context, if owning the ring was symbolic of possessing extraordinary capabilities or access to resources, it would elevate the owner’s status. They would be seen as someone with great authority, influence, and control, thus increasing their social standing and ability to dominate others. Consumerism can also dominate in various ways. For example, Goncharov (2020) argues that goods and services have become mediators of relationships. This means that on an interpersonal basis, as well as professionally, the relationship we have with the person next to us is moderated by tangible or intangible items. Thus, we are dominated by the function of those goods, by the status of those goods, or even by the monetary value of those goods. Those who are particularly materialistic may see their designer clothes, expensive technology, or brand of car as being a dominating force over others.
Consumerism and the One Ring could also be seen as dominating through spiritual poverty. Whilst spiritual poverty is often viewed through religion, it can also be viewed through consumerism as alienation, boredom, apathy, dissatisfaction, aimlessness, or emptiness. Feelings such as these are inherent to consumerism. In relation to Goncharov (2020) mentioned above, alienation occurs through the moderation of tangible and intangible consumer items precisely because alienation involves being removed from a social reality whereby those mediators of relationships can be put to one side whilst we take part in a non-consumerist relationship; we are alienated from alterity and are thus dominated via any absent alternative. The same can be said of the One Ring; there is no alterity to being the ringbearer once the ring has taken hold of the individual.
Desire & Temptation
The desire for, and temptation of, the One Ring is apparent throughout the story. Bilbo’s momentary lapse of control in Lothlorien when Frodo shows him the ring unmasks his burned-in desire to have the ring once more. The temptation to take the ring also led to Boromir’s death. This temptation for the power of the One Ring arose from a desire to return Gondor to its former glory. Similarly, advertising persistently exploits our desires to tempt us into consuming. This is why the phrase ‘sex sells’ is so dominant in advertising; it exploits a basic human desire. Similarly, food is a desire and temptation related to basic human needs. Wilk (2020: 19) uses food as a metaphor for well-ordered patterns of consumption:
Desire is hunger.
Shopping is hunting.
Buying is catching.
Using is eating and digesting.
Discarding is shitting.
Boromir’s desire, a hunger, to return Gondor to its former glory meant the One Ring was able to tempt him into taking it. Advertising does the same thing. Advertising is the One Ring that exploits our desires through tempting us into consuming. The desire for a particular lifestyle, a particular social standing, or perhaps just a desire to be seen. We do not even have to be conscious of these desires, and often we are not. Nevertheless, this is where the exploitation occurs.
The One-Ring extends the lifespan of its user, or at least it does on the assumption that it does not betray the wearer. For example, Smeagol, who found the ring after Isildur was killed, who then himself murdered Déagol, was tortured for 500 years as keeper of the ring. When Bilbo found it, he too was granted a longer life and this is reflected when Gandalf observes that Bilbo has not “aged a day”. When Bilbo passes the ring on to Frodo, Bilbo then experiences accelerated ageing. The One Ring gives a false sense of security in relation to ageing. This is also reflected in consumerism.
For example, the skincare market is expected to be worth $189 billion by 2025 (Lim et al., 2021). With its persistent claims of ‘youthful skin’ and ‘anti-ageing’ effects, the use of these products essentially constitutes a leap of faith whereby we place trust in the product in the belief that it will do as it says it will. We believe that we will be younger for longer. In a similar fashion, the health food market engages in the same practices. The idea that if we eat ‘healthier’ foods we will live longer means that consumption patterns may be directed towards buying products that we believe will extend our life. Of course, eating healthy can indeed allow us to live longer, but this idea is often exploited to sell us things that are not healthy under the pretence that they are good for us. Fat-free yoghurts are one such example. However, if we stop using authentic healthy products and switch to deceptive products, we may succumb to accelerated ageing or ill health.
For the One Ring, the betrayal of the wearer is crucial for the return to its master, Sauron. In LOTR, the One-Ring betrayed Isildur, slipping off his finger and leading him to his death; it betrayed his trust. Our relationship with consumer goods can also be highly dependent on trust. This is one reason why the social media influencer is strategically important for companies wishing to push their goods onto viewers. The companies sell their goods by exploiting a relationship of trust between the influencer and the viewer who sees the influencer subconsciously as a role model or authority figure. However, when influencers receive money or other incentive to sell consumer goods to the viewer, they betray this trust. In fact, it is the raison d’etre of the social media influencer (hence the name ‘influencer’).
Betrayal can also occur through what is known as the credence-goods problem. Hilger (2016) states:
Doctors, lawyers, financial advisers, and auto mechanics all suffer from an apparent conflict of interest: these experts first diagnose the consumer’s condition, and then they treat the condition they have diagnosed. This is known as the credence-good problem.
The issue arises whereby the seller of the goods is in a position of power through knowledge. The buyer of goods, who has no knowledge of the value of the goods they are buying, is ignorant of the reality of their actual value. For example, in private medical treatments, the individual may not know whether a specific treatment is actually required but is forced to take it in the absence of medical knowledge. The seller can exploit this position by charging high prices. This is a betrayal of the individual.
In adorning the One Ring, the wearer becomes bound to the will of Sauron. Their destiny, their journey, and their life become one with the will of Sauron, itself bound to the One Ring. The wearer then comes to experience the torment of the One Ring as it makes its journey back to its master. Similarly, we are bound to consumerism through capitalism, economics, work, and the necessities of life. In terms of necessities, we are forced to purchase energy, which is itself framed as a consumer good. Thus, this force inflicted on us to be an active consumer in an energy market binds us to consumerism. However, we are also bound to consumerism through a cyclical relationship with dependency and dissatisfaction.
Dependency can occur, for example, through becoming trapped in our comfort zone. As Roseanu & Mălan (2019) argue, consumerism helps us move into a comfort zone where, due to the amount of goods and services which make our lives easier, we tend to give up on challenging ourselves and become comfortable in our bubble. Thus, we then become dependent on the continuation of those goods and services. We become bound to them in order to maintain the binds to our comfort zone, our sense of security.
In the final moments before the One Ring is destroyed, Gollum and Frodo fight over who will claim the One Ring for themselves. Against the internal backdrop of Mount Doom, surrounded by fire and saturated in filth, the fight ends with the One Ring being destroyed in the place of its origin. The theme here is of conflict between individuals driven by the desire for an item. Think about how often we see footage of fighting and chaos over Black Friday deals—conflict over a cheap TV. Both conflicts are a result of manipulation, whether through advertising or the deception of information.
At the micro level, conflict over consumer items can occur through sibling conflict. Perhaps when only one of a given toy is available and two siblings clash over who gets to use it, for example. At the macro level, countries can come into conflict over consumer goods due to the complexity involved in their production as well as the political processes involved (Галанов et al., 2018). It has also been shown that simply viewing consumer goods can lead to reduced social involvement, increased competitiveness, increased depressed affect, and lower levels of trust in others (Bauer et al., 2012). These all provide a basis for possible conflict.
In a final comparison, something a little more philosophical. Consumer items are usually intangible and therefore abstract, or they are marketed and sold to us through wildly abstract means. The term ‘image is everything’ is a marketing term emphasising the importance of the presentation of a given consumer item. Image is critical because it is often not the item itself that the individual purchases but the image of the item. Similarly, in media consumption, what we see and read is abstracted from reality leaving us with a decontextualised imaginaire.
[there is a] shift from literary modes of communication, and the discourses shaped by the medium of printing, to electronic and primarily visual modes of communication, in which images – abstracted from their context – are transmitted across the globe at the speed of light and then rearranged as stories that bear little or no relation to that original context. Thus news items, advertisements, game-shows, soap operas and factual documentaries all have this in common: they are signs, which can be ordered, reordered, combined and juxtaposed in any sequence, to create entirely new narratives and meanings.(Buxton, 2010: 44)
When Frodo adorns the One Ring, he is shifted into the alternate realm of the Ringwraiths; he moves from reality to the abstract just as the consumer sees a consumer item and is courted by its abstract properties of status, signs, and meaning. In this abstract realm, we are attracted by the ethereal properties of a consumer good. How cool will we look wearing X, how tough will we look with X, or how rich will we look with X? It is the image of the item that comes to exploit our own internal desires to be or look a certain way and, in this exploitation of the abstract, we are convinced to part with our money in order to possess it. Similarly, when wearing the ring and shifting into the realm of ringwraiths, Frodo is pulled further in by the desire of the ring to return to its master. Additionally, Sauron is able to see Frodo when he adorns the One Ring through this abstract realm. Thus, we see how communication lines are established between Sauron and Frodo and advertisers and consumers; the advertisers see us just as Sauron can see Frodo and so we are exposed to an external power.
In the end, it is not the person who consumes the product but the product that consumes the person.
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