Who Is the Lord of the Rings, Exactly?

Who Is the Lord of the Rings, Exactly?
Alright then... (Screenshot: New Line Cinema)

It’s been a little while so it’s possible my memory isn’t as fresh on the subject of Middle-earth as it once was. But a thought occurred to me this weekend that I cannot shake: Did J.R.R. Tolkien name the Lord of the Rings trilogy after the bad guy?

Let me cover my arse a little by saying: yes, I have read the books (well, not the Silmarillion, I am not a monster) and yes, I have seen the films (OK, not the Hobbit ones, because Jesus, that did not need to be three movies).

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There’s no law or norm that says you can’t name an entertainment property after a villain, of course. Our own Germain Lussier gleefully pointed to Joker as a counterexample, while bandwagon-hopper Cheryl Eddy chided that the absence of this rule is “why Alien isn’t called Ripley.” Very funny guys. But is it so strange to think that a book series where good and evil are so clearcut would lend itself to this kind of title? And well, the Joker and the xenomorph are at least active participants in the plot of their respective films while Sauron is more of, I don’t know, a menacing presence?

It was my understanding that because 1.) Sauron made the rings and 2.) the rings could be controlled by Sauron, that made him the de facto and titular lord. And then it got confusing.

As James Whitbrook pointed out — when I showed up in Gizmodo’s slack channel, fully derailing whatever more important stuff they were discussing — “Lord of the Rings is also an in-universe text, so is Frodo writing an autobiographical tale or is he writing about Sauron?” I had entirely forgotten that the trilogy is a frame narrative, with its opening lines casting doubt onto the entire idea of, uh, titles:

This book is largely concerned with Hobbits, and from its pages a reader may discover much of their character and a little of their history. Further information will also be found in the selection from the Red Book of Westmarch that has already been published, under the title of The Hobbit. That story was derived from the earlier chapters of the Red Book, composed by Bilbo himself, the first Hobbit to become famous in the world at large, and called by him There and Back Again

[…]

It was in origin Bilbo’s private diary, which he took with him to Rivendell. Frodo brought it back to the Shire […] he nearly filled its pages with his account of the War

In the time and place of the frame narrator (who is a stand-in for, but is not himself, Tolkien) the prior document has both an in-universe name, and a portion of it has both a publication title and another separate title given to the story by its fictional author. Are we supposed to assume that The Lord of the Rings is the title given by Frodo, or some unnamed Fourth Age publisher? If it’s Frodo’s title why would he either name his memoir after the root of all evil during his lifetime, or, as James seems to suggest, refer to himself in relation to a magical object that got many of his friends killed (as well as other, similar magic objects that I’m pretty sure he does not encounter)?

As a last “fuck you” to anyone, like me, confused and annoyed by this whole conundrum, the frame narrator throws the possible authenticity of the whole work into question, writing that “the original Red Book has not been preserved, but many copies were made.” I’m pretty sure the next person who says the word “ring” around me is going to get a very confusing earful.

But I digress: the title as we know it, taken at face value, is a reference to Sauron…right? Has to be.

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