Canadian law student Jacob Kaufman has posted this interesting article about property law in the Lord of the Rings. I actually once created a handout for my Property class on how LOTR is really about the different modes of property acquisition. Sadly, literary critics have neglected this crucial aspect of Tolkien's masterpiece for too long. Fortunately, property professors and students in at least two countries have begun to fill the gap in the scholarly literature. Below the fold is my handout. You will never see the Ring the same way again. It turns out that property law is even more important in Tolkien's work than in Jane Austen's.
Property Acquisition in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings
Literary critics have unaccountably ignored the fact that J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy classic The Lord of the Rings was written for the purpose of explicating the different modes of property acquisition under the common law. Nonetheless, a close examination of the work demonstrates that nearly all the different methods of acquisition are described in detail, and their ethical implications examined. During the course of the story, a variety of characters acquire possession of the Ring of Power using every conceivable legal device.
I. Acquisition by Creation.
The Dark Lord Sauron forges the Ring of Power with the help of knowledge gained from the elven smiths of Eregion. His right to the Ring is thereby based on creation. The claim may be tenuous because it is not clear whether he made illegal use of the elves’ patented production processes (the suspicion of illegality is strengthened by the fact that Sauron made every effort to keep the elves from finding out what he was doing).
II. Acquisition by Conquest.
The Last Alliance of Elves and Men defeats Sauron in battle. The human King Isildur cuts the Ring off of Sauron’s finger (along with the finger itself), thereby acquiring it by right of conquest. Even assuming that the conquest was legitimate, it is not clear whether the law would support an exclusive claim of ownership by Isildur, without any rights simultaneously vesting in the elves (who played an equal role in winning the battle).
III. Acquisition by Find.
On his way home from the war, Isildur is ambushed and killed by orcs. The Ring is lost. Centuries later, it is accidentally found by the hobbit Deagol and his brother Smeagol (AKA Gollum). Deagol claims a property right based on his status as finder.
IV. Acquisition by Adverse Possession.
Gollum kills Deagol and takes possession of the Ring, which he retains for many years. Over time, he comes to think of himself as the real finder of the Ring, and he is strengthened in this opinion by the passage of an enormous length of time. Because Gollum’s possession of the Ring is open and notorious, under a claim of right, and for an extremely lengthy duration far beyond the statutory time period, he may have a claim based on adverse possession. However, Gollum’s claim is defective because a claim of adverse possession cannot succeed if it resulted from a criminal act by the claimant. In addition, adverse possession cannot normally establish title to personal as opposed to real property.
V. Acquisition by Agreement.
Gollum loses the Ring to the hobbit Bilbo Baggins in a riddle contest in which the Ring was a mutually agreed stake.
VI. Acquisition by Gift.
Bilbo gives the Ring to his nephew Frodo Baggins. His intention to give Frodo the ring is clear (though he waivers initially), and he hands the ring over in person, thereby effecting proper delivery.
VII. Temporary Acquisition by Necessity.
While Frodo lies unconscious, his servant Sam Gamgee temporarily takes possession of the Ring in order to save both of their lives from imminent danger.
VIII. Attempted Reacquisition by Self-help.
After Frodo regains the Ring from Sam, he plans to destroy it by throwing it into the fires of Mt. Doom. Both Sauron (who believes that he is the rightful owner) and Gollum (ditto) attempt to get the Ring back before Frodo can destroy it. They both resort to illegal self-help remedies rather than bringing the appropriate common law action and a preliminary injunction against destruction of the Ring before the case can be heard. Gollum succeeds in regaining the Ring from Frodo, but falls into the fire, destroying both the Ring and himself.
Moral of the Story
Much trouble could have been avoided if only the parties to this extended property dispute had properly followed the law of acquisition (not to be confused with the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition).
UPDATE: In addition to the primary property dispute over the ownership of the Ring, there are several other conflicts over property in the Lord of the Rings, such as the claim of Rohan's neighbors that the Riders wrongfully disposessed them of their land, the conflicting claims to ownership of Moria as between the Dwarves and the Balrog, and Aragorn's claims to inherit the lands and other property of his ancestor Isildur. The chapter on "The Scouring of the Shire" with its scathing portrayal of Saruman's "Gatherers and Sharers" and Saruman's nationalization of industry is a thinly veiled attack on socialism. None of this is to say that Tolkien was some kind of libertarian. He hated modern industry and capitalism. But he did have a conservative traditionalist's attachment to private property, and it comes through in the book at many points.