You know, its strange but my best thinking really is done in the shower...
So, I'm busy enjoying the play of warm water over my skin when my mind wanders to Lord of the Rings...as it is sometimes want to do. Specifically, I thought of the moment in The Fellowship of the Ring where Frodo tells Gandalf how "I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened" to which Gandalf replies, "So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us" (unfortunately, I cannot find the book page reference; I'm going on the movie reference for now).
In addition to being one of my favorite quotes of all time, it also made me think about what the Ring really stands for. Many critics believe that the symbolic value of the ring is simply code for the Atom Bomb. Tolkien, in his preface to The Fellowship of the Ring says that he distrusts allegory in all of its various forms. I am inclined to take him at his word; it's too simple a thing to assign that kind of value to something as elusive as the Ring. I think the Ring itself will mean different things to each reader/watcher of the trilogy.
Understanding the nature of evil chez Tolkien might lend some insight. I personally would start with the Simarillion, cheaply put, the "Bible" of Middle Earth. His version of the Creation of Middle Earth by the Ainur, or the Holy Ones who created the Elves, the Dwarves, Man, etc. is a MUST for those of you who are musically inclined. We also get to meet the Dark Lord Morgoth, one of the Ainur who introduces evil into the world through the guise of discord and violent change in all aspects of Nature. Even though he attempts to abort creation, the creative gods use his influence to their advantage, so that the placidity of the sea now has the terrible beauty of monsoons, storms, and crashing waves. Some mountains become volcanoes, the winds become hurricanes etc. They may have mitigated that potential disaster, but when Varda aka Elbereth Gilthoniel decides to create the First Borns, the Elves, Morgoth has something greater to pervert. Don't expect to see any apples or snakes in this origin although they are seduced to the Dark Side (sorry, I couldn't resist!). Morgoth draws some of the elves away and tortures them, perverting their beauty and good natures into the abominations now called orcs. Why digress on this, you ask? Because this directly relates and reinforces the symbolism of the ring.
When you think about a ring, what comes to mind? The union of marriage? The shining beauty of jewelry? The status that comes from wearing something thats pure gold? The glorious light reflected from its mirror-like sheen? The perfect simplicity of a simple band of gold? The vows of "always and forever", "in sickness and in health, 'til death do you part"? Perhaps all of the above? Each of these elements represent elements of purity, fellowship, light, and eternal love. What better to confound and seduce your poor unsuspecting readers than with making that the symbol of earthly destruction and ultimate evil? As many of the characters said in the books and in the film, 'its just a gold ring, how harmful can it be?'
(Well, if you dont know the specific answer to that question, I'd say you have some reading to do, my friend.)
That being said...perhaps...the worst evil in the world is truly perverted goodness. Beauty disguising an insidious malice, one that continues to do its work because its outword fashion has not changed. George Lucas didn't add this level of insidiousness into his villains; their awe-inspiring ugliness without matched that same ugliness within. Heck, even Vader wasn't a looker even under the mask, a good man who was physically tortured and perverted into an evil machine. They had fear and power to help them maintain control. Arguably, so did Sauron, portrayed in the movies as one equal to Palpatine and Vader in hideousness. Lucas' "One Ring" equivalent was the Dark Side of the Force, the power that was surprisingly close to the beauty and inspiration of the LIght Side, but more powerful, more seductive. Even so, the Force didn't come in the harmless guise of a trinket from Zales. Something simple, an signifying object that has a referent that the average Joe could implicitly trust...all gone. I still can't believe that the Noble Collection has found a consumer market for replicas of the One Ring, inscription and all. I wouldn't want that damn thing in my house! If people are walking around WEARING the damn thing, warm in fuzzy for their love of the books/movie, etc., then I think that Tolkien is laughing his ass off up in heaven with the irony of it all. I suppose the fact that they can sell them in silver, gold, and 24 kt gold at $500+ a pop only further makes my point: Isildur's Bane is just as pertinent today as it was 60-70 years ago, and its what we make of it.