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One of the most powerful characterizations in The Lord of the Rings is the addictive nature of the Ring. The way it slowly but powerfully makes you prioritize it above everything else, never exerting obvious control over you but never letting go either. Obviously, anyone who reads the books or sees the movies will quickly draw connections to real-world addictions, like drugs.

Did Tolkien have any experience, personal or through his friends or family, of addiction? Was he drawing inspiration from a friend's battle with opium, for example, or morphine? Many of the harder drugs that people associate with Gollum today (e.g. "he looks like a meth addict") didn't exist then, and I know Tolkien wasn't a fan of direct allegory, but there were still plenty of addictive substances and behaviors that could have inspired him to create a character like Gollum or a power like the Ring's.

Was Tolkien drawing upon any personal experience when he developed the influence of the Ring, or was it purely an abstract exploration of power and greed?

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    He was a smoker and nicotine is highly addictive. – user8719 Jan 9 '14 at 22:57
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    Actually, meth had already been invented by the time he started on LotR, but it wouldn't have been seen as the addictive and life-destroying substance it's viewed as today. Back then it was used in diet pills, decongestants and bronchial dilators and available over the counter. – Lèse majesté Jan 9 '14 at 23:35
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    I'm not certain about the history of morphine as an anaesthetic, but if it was used back then it's very likely that Tolkien would have seen it (and seen it's effects) during WW1 as well (especially given his own hospitalization). – user8719 Jan 10 '14 at 0:26
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    Opium was very much in use as a recreational drug long before Tolkien wrote the books - morphine was first isolated from opium in 1804, and was readily available from pharmacies after the 1820s - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morphine – HorusKol Jan 10 '14 at 0:33
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    @PatDobson Wrong Lewis! Tolkien was 6 when Lewis Carroll died so I doubt they ever met. I guess you're thinking of CS Lewis. – Loop Space May 18 '15 at 16:22
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In a word, no... All of the documentaries and biographies I have encountered mention nothing of an addiction to drugs, either personally or close relationship. With that said, it is not impossible though.

But, Tolkien is known to be devoutly religious, however, not a fanatical zealot, so the 'addiction' could have been one he recognized in that respect. There is also the thread of anti-industrialization that pervades LOTR. The greed (both money and power) that seems to accompany industrialization could also be seen as addiction, and tie closely to the One (gold) Ring and the desire for power of Sauron and other characters - Saruman, Boromir (out of desire for good and tragic), and Denethor.

Tolkien would have also witnessed battlefield medicine and other medical 'advancements'. Morphine, cocaine and arsenic, opium and meth (as mentioned in comments), but also the introduction of ether, laughing gas, Valium, and other pharmaceutical 'remedies'. And then of course there is alcohol.

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    The ring was a tool for the dominion of others. Control of others is the central theme of evil in Tolkien's writing. Industry was portrayed as one of the means of exerting this control, as was wealth, persuasive language and force. These were not evil, in and of themselves, only when used to control others or self-harm. Good uses of industry were exemplified throughout, particularly by the Dwarves. – S. Albano Jan 17 '14 at 3:08
  • While the Dwarves were not overtly malicious, in both the books and movies they are characterized as concerned only with their own pursuits, eg. gold and jewels == greed. The tunneling in Moria leads to their ruin and the Balrog being awakened. And at Erebor the greed brings Smaug and the Arkenstone causes all kinds of conflict. So, while the Dwarven industrialization itself is not 'evil', the message is that industrial expansion must be tempered, lest it lead to ruin. The age old, "It can be done, but should it be done?" – Wayne Weibel Jan 22 '14 at 18:34
  • Arsenic as a sweetener? From what I've heard, it's so foul-tasting that it was far less effective as a poison than today's historical fiction would have you believe, because it was difficult to mix enough of it to form a lethal dosage into food and still have food that the intended victim would eat. – Mason Wheeler Nov 13 '14 at 0:26
  • Sorry, that conjunction got a little jumbled - it was supposed to mean cocaine as sweetner and arsenic as preservative ... will edit. – Wayne Weibel Nov 13 '14 at 15:18
  • Cocaine as sweetener? It tastes like Coca-Cola without any sugar or water. – Cees Timmerman Feb 13 '15 at 11:06
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Tolkien was friends with C. S. Lewis and according to Lewis his brother Warren Lewis was an alcoholic*, so he might have seen its effects at second hand.

*: "The Letters of C. S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves", pp. 29-30

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As Wayne Weibel points out in his answer, Tolkien was devoutly religious. As an adult re-reading Tolkien I found a striking parallel between the allure of the Ring and that of sin and idolatry. The One Ring promises control over the other rings, over oneself, and over others. Sin promises autonomy in the form of freedom to exercise one's will independently of God. Similarly, the Ring was Sauron's attempt to impose his control over the Elves just as his master, Morgoth, tried to control all of Middle-earth apart from Eru's intentions at the creation of Arda. The theme of man attempting to exercise power and authority apart from God is found all throughout scripture. The Fall, Babel, and the golden calf are just a few examples. Any object that sets itself up as the supreme good apart from God can become the subject of idolatry.

When Frodo and Bilbo stuggle with the nature of the Ring the temptation is to give up whatever previously had been their chief good in exchange for the potential of the Ring. Sméagol gave himself over entirely, forgetting his previous life and kindred and treasuring only the Ring as Gollum. Frodo set out on a mission to destroy the Ring but instead claimed it for himself. Bilbo called it his precious and would not have given it up if it weren't for Gandalf's prodding.

Drug addiction is just one of many things with similar characteristics to the lure of the Ring. Tolkien did not admit to specific symbolism or analogy. See The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien #121:

The Ring of Sauron is only one of the various mythical treatments of the placing of one's life, or power, in some external object, which is thus exposed to capture or destruction with disastrous results to oneself. If I were to 'philosophise' this myth, or at least the Ring of Sauron, I should say it was a mythical way of representing the truth that potency (or perhaps rather potentiality) if it is to be exercised, and produce results, has to be externalised and so as it were passes, to a greater or less degree, out of one's direct control.

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According to the Evil Weapon trope, Tolkien was inspired by Kalevala - The Finnish national epic by Elias Lönnrot in 1835:

J.R.R. Tolkien claimed The Kalevala as one of his sources for The Silmarillion. For example, Kullervo's story is the basis of Túrin Turambar in Narn i Chîn Húrin, including the sword that speaks when the anti-hero uses it to commit suicide. Echoes of The Kalevala's characters, Väinämöinen in particular, can be found in Tom Bombadil of The Lord of the Rings.

Other examples from mythology and religion include:

  • The swords made by the Real Life swordsmith Sengo Muramasa are sometimes portrayed like this. Folklore tell of him competing against his master Gorō Masamune - who actually lived some 300 years before Muramasa, making this impossible - to see who was the better swordsmith. They placed their swords in a river, to see if they could cut the passing leaves and fish without effort. Muramasa's swords cut everything indiscriminately, while Masamune's did not. A mark of their sharpness, yes, but also their complete lack of restraint or recognition of innocence. Other tales state the blades can only be sheathed once they have drawn blood (and aren't picky about where it comes from), and that they can drive their wielders mad with bloodlust.

Norse Mythology:

  • Swords that "always (must) kill a man when unsheathed" are somewhat frequently encountered. Examples are Dainsleif from Prose Edda, Tyrfing from The Saga of Hervor and Heidrek, and the sword of Bodvar Bjarki in Saga of Hrolf Kraki.

  • Tyrfing from The Saga of Hervor and Heidrek was moreover cursed so that three deeds of parricide would be done by it.

Irish Mythology:

  • Lugh's spear, variously called Areadbhair, Luisne, and Brionac (the first is the most likely), had the advantage of being able to fight on its own. The bad news: it wouldn't stop, not even when the battle was over. Solution: Immerse the spear's head in poppy juice, keeping it in Snoozeville until it was needed again.

Losing control of a powerful weapon is part of many stories, of which Tolkien drew inspiration. According to this page:

Tolkien told L.W. Forster of his influences. Since the writing of The Lord of the Rings had already reached Bree in 1937, the Second World War and the atomic bomb had no influence on the writing. Neither did World War I, though the Dead Marshes owed something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme. However, it owed more to William Morris' The House of the Wolfings and The Roots of the Mountains.

The rings of Sauron are indeed cursed by his evil, as explained by The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien page 332:

Sauron would not have feared the Ring! It was his own and under his will. Even from afar he had an effect upon it, to make it work for its return to himself. In his actual presence none but very few of equal stature could have hoped to withhold it from him. Of 'mortals' no one, not even Aragorn.

A more interesting take on The Ring Andvaranaut than Wagner's additional explanation that the ring bearer would rule the world.

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    Not just according to TVTropes: Tolkien's inspiration in the Kalevala is well-known. Here's a quote: "the beginning of the legendarium [...] was in an attempt to reorganize some of the Kalevala, especially the tale of Kullervo the hapless, into a form of my own" Letter 163 (tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Letter_163) – David Roberts Sep 3 '15 at 11:43

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