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FAQ of the Rings

Frequently Asked Questions about the Rings of Power

revised 6 Oct 2013

Copyright © 2002–2013 by Stan Brown, Oak Road Systems

Summary: While there are quite a few good general Tolkien FAQs out there, this one focuses specifically on questions about the Rings of Power, drawing from his books and published letters.

Contents: FAQs:   All the Rings  |  Invisibility  |  The 7 and 9  |  The 3  |  The 1
Sources  |  Other FAQs  |  What’s New

See also: Articles Referenced in the FAQ of the Rings

“I am not now at all sure that the tendency to treat the whole thing as a kind of vast game is really good. ... It is, I suppose, a tribute to the curious effect that story has ... that so many should clamour for sheer ‘information’ or ‘lore’.” [L #160 (210)]

“There is only one Power in this world that knows all about the Rings and their effects.” [LotR I 2 (62)]  Though my own knowledge is far from complete, I’ll be revising this FAQ based on my own re-readings of Tolkien’s works and on your kind comments and suggestions.


The FAQs

Contents:

A. The Rings of Power

Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

A1. What were the powers of the Rings?

(last revised 7 May 2002 )

“The chief power (of all the rings alike) was the prevention or slowing of decay (i.e. ‘change’ viewed as a regrettable thing), the preservation of what is desired or loved, or its semblance—this is more or less an Elvish motive. But they also enhanced the natural powers of a possessor—thus approaching ‘magic’, a motive easily corrupted into evil, a lust for domination. And finally they had other powers, more directly derived from Sauron ... such as rendering invisible the material body, and making things of the invisible world visible.” [L #131 (152)]

The Rings of Power had one additional effect, which definitely was not for the benefit of the bearer: with repeated use, they would turn a mortal (Man or Hobbit) into a wraith under Sauron’s domination. (This most likely did not apply to the Three Rings, which did not make anyone invisible and had never been touched by Sauron. Dwarves were also immune.)

One form of change and decay that the Rings prevented was the aging of their mortal bearers. But it was not the same as eternal youth: recall Bilbo’s complaint that he felt “all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread.” [LotR I 1 (45)]  See also Then why didn’t Gollum and Bilbo die when they lost the Ring?

(A Dwarf’s life span was not affected by any Ring. Michael Kohrs pointed this out [r.a.b.t article of 2002-01-04] with the following quote from [LotR A III (1114)]: “Though they could be slain or broken, they could not be reduced to shadows enslaved to another will; and for the same reason their lives were not affected by any Ring, to live either longer or shorter because of it.”)

The One Ring had special powers, and the Three had their own special powers.

A2. Why did the Rings make their wearers invisible?

(last revised 3 Jan 2004 )

Originally, it’s because in The Hobbit Tolkien needed a plot device to make Bilbo invisible, and Tolkien chose a magic ring although, according to John Rateliff on pp 174–182 of Mr. Baggins, this was not a common choice in older fairy-stories. (Thanks to Steve Morrison for pointing this out; previously this FAQ described a magic ring as “the traditional choice in fairy-stories”.)

When Tolkien decided to make Bilbo’s ring the link to his new novel The Lord of the Rings, the invisibility had to become part of the larger picture.

In the larger picture, there are two “worlds”, what we might think of very roughly as the material plane and the spiritual plane. Elves (specifically the High Elves who have lived in Valinor) exist in both at the same time. Steuard Jensen points out [r.a.b.t article of 2002-02-01] that this is not true of Elves in general: the Elves of Mirkwood could not see Bilbo while he wore the Ring. Mortals (Men and Hobbits) normally are aware only of the everyday material world.

The Rings (the One and the Nine, probably the Seven as well) shift the wearer partly into that spiritual world. In Rivendell, Gandalf tells Frodo “You were in gravest peril while you wore the Ring, for then you were half in the wraith-world yourself.” [LotR II 1 (238)]  A little later in the same conversation, Frodo remarks “I saw a white figure that shone and did not grow dim like the others. Was that Glorfindel then?” and Gandalf answers “Yes, you saw him for a moment as he is upon the other side: one of the mighty of the Firstborn.” [LotR II 1 (239)]  In other words, being half in the spirit world Frodo could see things in the spirit world that his mortal companions could not see. But the price was new vulnerability: “you had become visible to them [the Black Riders], being already on the threshold of their world.” [ibid]

When Frodo climbs to the top of Amon Hen and puts on the Ring, he can again see and be seen in the spirit world [LotR II 10 (421)]. Sauron knows immediately where Frodo is, but fortunately only in a general way; and Frodo sees Sauron’s search as an arm with pointing finger groping for him.

Tolkien gives further description when Sam puts on the ring in Cirith Ungol, on the borders of Mordor [LotR IV 9 (761)]. “All things around him now were not dark but vague; while he himself was there in a grey hazy world, alone, like a small black solid rock. ... He did not feel invisible at all, but horribly and uniquely visible; and he knew that somewhere an Eye was searching for him.” Sam was half in the wraith-world, and so his sight of things in the material world was dimmed. Again, he had now become visible in the spirit world, and thus more vulnerable to Sauron. That same passage shows how the Ring that dimmed sight in the material world sharpened hearing.

The Ring shifted its wearer partly out of the material world, but not quite completely. Bilbo still cast a shadow in the bright sunlight [Hobbit V (86)], though the shadow was “shaky and faint” [Hobbit V (77)].

The invisibility granted by the Rings is not just a handy device, but a dangerous step along the road to hell. This was Sauron’s doing. Gandalf says “if [a Man or Hobbit] often uses the Ring to make himself invisible, he fades: he becomes in the end invisible permanently, and walks in the twilight under the eye of the dark power that rules the Rings.” [LotR I 2 (60)]  In other words, someone who uses a Great Ring habitually will become a wraith, like the Nazgûl.

Did the Seven and the Nine have these “wraithifying” powers as originally forged by the Elves, or did Sauron add that feature after seizing them? We don’t know. Given that the Three Rings did not confer invisibility, it seems at least plausible that none of the Rings forged by Elves originally had this feature. It’s hard to imagine Celebrimbor deliberately putting it into any Rings, though he might have followed some element of Sauron’s recipe without fully understanding it. In the absence of any statement from Tolkien we can only speculate.

See also: Invisibility

A3. Who could see an invisible Ring-wearer?

(last revised 18 Nov 2006 )

Tom Bombadil could, obviously [LotR I 7 (149)]—but he was a special case in a lot of ways. At the Council of Elrond, when Erestor suggests that Tom has a power over the Ring, Gandalf corrects him: “Say rather that the Ring has no power over him. He is his own master.” [LotR II 2 (283)]

The Nazgûl could: “while you wore the Ring, ... [y]ou could see them, and they could see you.” [LotR II 1 (238)]  And if they could, surely Sauron could, though we’re not given direct evidence—fortunately for Frodo. But the horrifying scene with the groping arm on Amon Hen [LotR II 10 (421)] is suggestive: if Sauron had a good idea of the Ring’s whereabouts when someone many miles away put it on, it would be surprising if he couldn’t see the wearer if he was right there.

And we know from The Hobbit that a mortal wearing a Ring was not absolutely invisible: “only in the full sunlight could you be seen, and then only by your shadow, and that would be shaky and faint.” [Hobbit V (91)]  A few pages later this actually happens. When Bilbo, wearing his new Ring, is stuck in the doorway out of the Goblins’ realm, he casts a shadow: “There is a shadow by the door. Something is outside!” [Hobbit V (100)]

The more intriguing question is whether there are any classes of persons who can see a mortal who is wearing a Ring, as Tom Bombadil could. Dwarves can’t, because Balin “look[ed] straight at [Bilbo] without noticing him.” [Hobbit VI (102)]  Mortals and Silvan Elves and Orcs can’t, as all of Bilbo’s adventures make clear. The obvious candidates are Wizards and High Elves, but here we are in the realm of speculation and inference since Tolkien never directly answered this question.

In The Hobbit, we never quite know whether Gandalf can see the invisible Bilbo. Only one incident might have told us: When Bilbo rejoins the Dwarves and Gandalf after escaping from the Goblins, his Ring gets him past Balin the lookout, but “the bushes at the edge of the dell” screen him from Gandalf’s view. [Hobbit VI (102)] There can’t have been any significant open ground for him to cross from there to the group of Dwarves, because it takes no time at all for him to pop into the middle of the group. After the Dwarves and Gandalf have bickered a bit, we read “‘And here’s the burglar!’ said Bilbo stepping down into the middle of them, and slipping off the ring. ... Gandalf was as astonished as any of them ... He called to Balin and told him what he thought of a lookout who let people walk right into them like that.” [Hobbit VI (103)]  You can read that as you like: either Gandalf didn’t see Bilbo because Bilbo was wearing the Ring, or Gandalf didn’t see Bilbo because he stepped in a moment from his concealment in the bushes into full view.

A second occasion in The Hobbit is even less informative, if possible. In the Battle of Five Armies, Bilbo and Gandalf are both near the Elvenking (Thranduil) on Ravenhill [Hobbit XVII (270)], but Gandalf is “preparing ... some last blast of magic” and wouldn’t be paying attention to Bilbo, visible or not. After the battle, the messenger tells Bilbo, “we have looked for you long. ... Gandalf the wizard ... said that your voice was last heard in this place” [Hobbit XVIII (300)]—not “said that he heard your voice in this place” and most definitely not “said that he saw you in this place”. Apart from his Ring, Bilbo would have put himself in an out-of-the-way place, so as to avoid getting trampled by warriors who couldn’t see him. Again, since a preoccupied and injured Gandalf might not notice a visible Bilbo, the fact that he didn’t see an invisible Bilbo tells us nothing.

As for The Lord of the Rings, in a Usenet article [r.a.b.t article of 2006-04-11] “nfw” points out that Bilbo put on the Ring at the end of his birthday speech. Gandalf was certainly there: he made the flash that coincided with Bilbo’s disappearance, as he confirms to Bilbo a few paragraphs later. Yet Gandalf was not surprised by Bilbo’s putting on the Ring, since Gandalf later reproves Bilbo with “I suppose you feel that everything has gone off ... according to plan?” [LotR I 1 (44)] We can’t tell whether Gandalf could see Ring-wearing Bilbo. True, back in the hobbit-hole Gandalf says “I am glad to find you visible”, but that proves only that Gandalf knew when Bilbo was wearing the ring, not whether Bilbo was visible to Gandalf at those times. (“Visible” may not even be the opposite of “invisible” here; it might mean “at home, receiving visitors”, or of course it might mean both.)

What of the High Elves, like Glorfindel and Galadriel? “Those who have dwelt in the Blessed Realm live at once in both worlds, and against both the Seen and the Unseen they have great power” [LotR II 1 (239)] and Glorfindel was visible “on the other side”. Since the Rings make their wearers invisible by shifting them into the wraith-world, where Glorfindel had a presence, it seems at least possible that the Elves who have lived in Valinor could see a Ring-wearer. And if they could, then Gandalf certainly could, since he was natively a pure spirit and only secondarily wearing a body. (Does Elrond count? He’s a lord of the Noldor, but never lived in Valinor himself.) But neither Frodo nor Bilbo nor Isildur ever put on the Ring in front of an Elf of Valinor, and this question has no answer.

See also: Invisibility

A4. Why were Frodo’s and Bilbo’s clothes invisible while they wore the Ring?

(added 7 Apr 2002, per suggestion by Ben Ross-Johnsrud )

You might well ask, if the Rings make their wearers invisible by shifting them into the spirit world, then why did their clothes shift too?

One answer, perhaps the best and certainly the simplest, is that they had to or the Ring would be useless as a plot device. Can you picture Bilbo stripping off his clothes before putting on his ring to avoid the Sackville-Bagginses?

But we can do better than that. Steuard Jensen posted a very plausible story-internal explanation of how the rings convey invisibility to not just the bodies but also the clothes of their wearers [r.a.b.t article of 1998-09-08].

And of course it wasn’t just Bilbo and Frodo (and Sam and Gollum). Isildur too vanished with all his clothes when wearing the Ring [UT: GF (274)]. (The passage is worth reading for a remarkable point: the Elendilmir that Isildur wore blazed forth even when he was invisible, but drawing his [invisible] hood over it blocked its light! Steuard Jensen’s theory accounts for this.)

Steven Souter analyzed not only the Elendilmir phenomenon but also the fact that the Spiders of Mirkwood could see Bilbo’s sword while he was invisible [r.a.b.t article of 1998-09-08].

See also: Invisibility

A5. Then why were the Black Riders’ clothes visible?

(added 7 Apr 2002, per suggestion by Ben Ross-Johnsrud )

Okay, given that the Rings turned body and clothes invisible, why could Strider and the hobbits see the Black Riders’ clothes?

This is not hard to explain, if (as seems likely) the Nazgûl were not wearing their rings. Remember the history of the Nazgûl:

Back in the Second Age, Sauron gave nine rings to Men. Those Men and their clothes eventually became permanently invisible, and the nine Men were wraiths under the control of their rings. Some time after this, Sauron took physical custody of the Nine Rings. Still later, in the Third Age, the Nazgûl put on “black robes [that] are real robes that they wear to give shape to their nothingness”, in Gandalf’s words [LotR II 1 (239)]. But since the Riders were not wearing their rings, their new outer clothes were not made invisible. They could be seen by mortals with ordinary sight.

Note that the Riders were still wearing some of their original clothes. When Frodo put on the One Ring at Weathertop, “He was able to see beneath their black wrappings. ... under their mantles were long grey robes; upon their grey hairs were helms of silver; in their haggard hands were swords of steel.” [LotR I 11 (212)]

No, the Ring did not give X-ray vision—well, not as such, anyway. The black robes were “real”, meaning they were ordinary material robes, and therefore only imperfectly visible in the spirit world. All ordinary matter was vague and foggy to someone wearing the Ring; this is best described when Sam puts on the Ring in the pass of Cirith Ungol [LotR IV 10 (761)].

But the Riders’ inner clothes and gear had been “wraithified” along with their bodies in the Second Age, while they wore their rings. Thus they were permanently invisible to ordinary mortals’ sight, but having been translated to the spirit world with their bodies those clothes and gear were completely visible to Frodo while he wore the Ring.

O. Sharp posted a detailed and witty explanation of this phenomenon in 1995 [r.a.b.t article of 1995-08-19].

Summary: Probably the Riders were not wearing their Rings at the end of the Third Age. Therefore the clothes that they put on remained visible because there was no ring to turn them invisible. (If you believe that the Riders were wearing their Rings, please tell me how you account for why their black robes were visible but their grey ones were not.)

See also: Invisibility

A6. Did the Rings give the ability to read minds?

(last revised 11 Sep 2004 )

The One Ring did, to an extent; the others did not.

The One Ring let its wielder read and control the thoughts of those who wore the other Rings, after practice. Thus it acted as a telepathic receiver from those who were wearing lesser Rings.

The One Ring let Sam understand Orc-language, but it’s not clear whether that was telepathy; see Understand languages, or read thoughts?

The other Rings might have acted as receivers, once anyway. When Sauron first set the Ring on his finger, Gandalf tells the Council of Elrond, “the Smiths of Eregion heard” Sauron speak the words of the Ring-rhyme “and knew that they had been betrayed”. [LotR II 2 (272)] This suggests the possibility of some form of at least momentary Ring-based telepathy. But since we never see any further evidence of that, I believe it was just the start of the One Ring’s control making itself felt, but before that control was complete.

Tolkien himself offers another explanation in a Letter: “[Sauron] reckoned, however, without the wisdom and subtle perceptions of the Elves. The moment he assumed the One, they were aware of it, and of his secret purpose, and were afraid.” [L #131 (152)]  In other words, the Elven-smiths of Eregion were aware of Sauron because they were wise Elves, not because of any communication from the One to the Three, Seven, or Nine Rings.

As far as we know, with that one possible exception, none of the other Rings gave any sort of ability to read minds, not of bearers of Rings and not of anyone else.

There is telepathy in The Lord of the Rings, but it doesn’t depend on the Rings. Near the end of the story, as the travelers were returning home through Eregion, Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel, and Celeborn would converse purely mentally, night after night: “For they did not move or speak with mouth, looking from mind to mind; and only their shining eyes stirred and kindled as their thoughts went to and fro.” [LotR VI 6 (1021)]  Note that Celeborn participated in this conversation by telepathy, even though he had no Ring; and anyway, at this point in the story the Three had lost all their powers anyway.

If you want to know more about Tolkien’s conception of telepathy, get hold of a copy of his essay “Ósanwe-kenta, Enquiry into the Communication of Thought” (Vinyar Tengwar, Number 39, July 1998, ISSN 1054–7606; back issues available from the publishers).

A7. Who made the Rings, and when?

(last revised 23 Feb 2002 )

In the Second Age, around S.A. 1200, Sauron started trying to corrupt the Elves [LotR App B (1120)]. Striking out with Gil-galad and Elrond, he had better luck with the Elven-smiths of Eregion (Hollin). Celebrimbor (whose name was on the west gate of Moria [LotR II 4 (322)]), was both the chief smith and the ruler there. Though they had fought against Morgoth, they refused to return to Valinor after his defeat. They wanted to eat their cake and have it: to stay in Middle-earth where they were the highest order of being, yet have the same joys as the Elves who had returned to Valinor and lived under the Valar [Silm: Rings (287)], [L #131 (151)]. That was how Sauron tempted them.

Here’s the chronology, from the Tale of Years [LotR App B (1120)]. Starting around S.A. 1500, Sauron and the Elves together made the Seven and the Nine Rings in Eregion; then Sauron left for Mordor. About S.A. 1590 Celebrimbor made the Three [LotR II 2 (259)] without Sauron’s assistance (but partly using what the Elves had learned from him). Finally, ten years later Sauron completed the One Ring in the forges of Mount Doom in Mordor. (Ten years is the blink of an eye: it took Sauron six hundred years to build the Barad-dûr, perhaps because he built the foundations last, using the Ring [LotR II 2 (261)].)

A8. How many Rings were there?

We don’t know for certain, but certainly more than the twenty Great Rings mentioned in the Ring-rhyme.

In “The Shadow of the Past”, Gandalf tells Frodo, “In Eregion long ago many Elven-rings were made, magic rings as you call them, and they were, course, of various kinds: some more potent and some less. The lesser rings were only essays in the craft before it was full-grown, and to the Elven-smiths they were but trifles—yet still to my mind dangerous for mortals. But the Great Rings, the Rings of Power, they were perilous.” [LotR I 2 (60)]

So there were other rings; were there other Great Rings? Probably not. We know that the Rings mentioned in the rhyme were all Great Rings. We know that the Elves also made some lesser rings, not mentioned in the rhyme. We don’t absolutely know that the rhyme enumerates all the Great Rings, but that certainly seems the simplest hypothesis.

Conclusion: There were twenty Great Rings and an unknown number of lesser rings. We don’t know what powers the lesser rings had, or what became of them after Sauron seized them.

A9. Why didn’t Sauron make more Rings?

(added 23 Feb 2002 )

While there is no definitive answer, we can come up with some plausible answers.

It’s easy to rule out some reasons. For instance, during the latter half of the Second Age (1600-3441) he had the One Ring, so he had the power. (And anyway, it couldn’t have needed much power to make the Seven or the Nine, since the Elves were able to make the Three Rings unassisted.) And during most of that time he was undisturbed by Elves and Men, so he had the time.

Perhaps the best answers are story external, lying in some of Tolkien’s recurring themes.

A10. What was Saruman’s ring?

(last revised 10 Jul 2010 )

Short answer: we don’t know.

Longer answer:

Gandalf tells the Council of Elrond that at his last visit to Saruman he saw him “wear a ring on his finger. ...‘I am Saruman the Wise, Saruman Ring-maker.’” [LotR II 2 (275-276)]  But we don’t see any evidence that Saruman had any enhanced Ring-derived power. There’s no mention of Saruman’s ring ever again, not even when we see him in “The Voice of Saruman”, (III 10), “Many Partings” (VI 6), and “The Scouring of the Shire” (VI 8).

Perhaps Saruman’s ring was a bit of bluff, to overawe Gandalf and persuade him to submit. Perhaps it was even a bit of self deception on Saruman’s part. We just don’t know.

However, Tolkien gives us a strong hint, as Doug Elrod pointed out. [r.a.b.t article of 2002-07-11]  In the Foreword, Tolkien writes about how The Lord of the Rings would have played out if it had been modeled on the course of World War II: “Saruman, failing to get possession of the Ring, would ... have found in Mordor the missing links in his own researches into Ring-lore, and before long he would have made a Great Ring of his own with which to challenge the self-styled Ruler of Middle-earth. [emphasis added]” [LotR   Foreword (11)]

If there were missing links in Saruman’s research, then it seems the ring he showed Gandalf could not have been a Great Ring, the equal of the Three or even the Seven or the Nine. Perhaps it was an “essay in the craft” [LotR I 2 (60)]. Perhaps it was just ordinary jewelry, pure brag intended to impress Gandalf and perhaps to bluff Sauron; that is my belief.

It is, however, only fair to add that in an extensive discussion in rec.arts.books.tolkien in June 2010, most felt that Saruman’s ring did have some power and was more than just jewelry.


B. Invisibility

Questions in every section of this FAQ have to do with the invisibility conferred by the Great Rings. Here are links to all the questions that contain information on that topic.


C. The Seven and the Nine Rings

C1. How did the Seven and the Nine differ?

We’re not sure; possibly there was no difference.

It’s easy to see that the Dwarves did different things with the Seven than Men did with the Nine. Sauron could not dominate the wills of the Dwarves through the Rings, nor could they be turned to wraiths. The main effect seemed to be to intensify the standard Dwarvish greed for gold, which of course provided plenty of occasion for quarrels between Dwarves. Men, on the other hand, became great kings and sorcerers on their way to becoming wraiths [Silm: Rings (288-289)].

Those seem like differences between Men and Dwarves, not between two groups of Rings. Several quotes imply that Sauron just took the sixteen Rings he got from his war on the Elves and handed some to Dwarves and others to Men. For instance: “Sauron gathered into his hands all the remaining Rings of Power; and he dealt them out. ... Seven rings he gave to the Dwarves; but to Men he gave nine, for Men proved in this matter as in others the readiest to his will.” [Silm: Rings (288)]

On the other hand, the “History of Galadriel and Celeborn” goes into some detail about Sauron’s seizure of the Rings: “There Sauron took the Nine Rings and other lesser works of the Mirdain; but the Seven and the Three he could not find. Then Celebrimbor was put to torment, and Sauron learned from him where the Seven were bestowed. This Celebrimbor revealed, because neither the Seven nor the Nine did he value as he valued the Three.” [UT: GC (238)]  This could be read two ways. Either (a) the Nine were taken first by Sauron because they were considered less valuable by the Elves and were less carefully guarded, or (b) seven (of the sixteen) had already been given out and nine were still in the Elves’ treasury, but there was no intrinsic difference between them and whether a Dwarf or Man ended up with a particular ring was just the luck of the draw.

(I am grateful to Conrad Dunkerson for drawing my attention to that passage from Unfinished Tales [r.a.b.t article of 2001-06-09].)

C2. Were the Seven and Nine Rings originally intended for Dwarves and Men?

(last revised 5 Mar 2004 )

Almost certainly not. The intended purpose of the Rings was preserving Middle-earth from change. This is an Elvish motive, not likely to appeal to Dwarves and especially not to Men.

In the Ring-rhyme, only the sixth and seventh lines (“One Ring to rule them all ...”) were spoken by Sauron. They were most likely part of the spell that created the One Ring, since he also inscribed the verses in the Ring. Gandalf quotes those lines (in the Black Speech and then in Westron) at the Council of Elrond, adding: “Out of the Black Years come the words that the Smiths of Eregion heard, and knew that they had been betrayed” [LotR II 2 (271-272)].

The other six lines were “lore”, written by some unknown person after Sauron had seized the Seven and the Nine Rings and given them out to his intended victims. When those lines cite numbers of Rings “for” Elves, Dwarves, and Men, that is hindsight and not an expression of original intent. Tolkien makes this clear at one point where he mentions Sauron handing out the seized Rings and then adds “Hence the ‘ancient rhyme’ that appears as the leit-motif of The Lord of the Rings[L #131 (153)].

Steuard Jensen points out [r.a.b.t article of 2002-07-16] that not only did the Elves originally intend for the Seven and the Nine to be kept by Elves, Sauron originally intended it too. When he made and put on the One Ring to control the others and their wearers, he intended to make the Elf-lords his slaves. But they immediately realized his purpose and thwarted him by taking off their Rings. Only then did he make open war on Eregion, take the Rings, and give them out to Men and Dwarves. (The above-cited article lays out an interesting scenario for how things might have gone if the Elves had not realized their danger and thus fallen under his domination.)

There may be one exception. Thorin Oakenshield’s ancestors, down to his father, bore one of the Seven. “The Dwarves of Durin’s Folk ... say that it was given to the King of Khazad-dûm, Durin III, by the Elven-smiths themselves and not by Sauron, though doubtless his evil power was on it.” [LotR App A(III) (1113)].  Perhaps this is one of the legends about a great leader, like George Washington and the cherry tree, that are part of a people’s tradition without being literally true. This particular Dwarvish tradition is contradicted by The Silmarillion: “Sauron gathered into his hands all the remaining Rings of Power. ... Seven Rings he gave to the Dwarves” [Silm: Rings (288)].

C3. Did the Dwarves’ Rings make them invisible?

(last revised 28 Aug 2002 )

Most likely not. “The Dwarves indeed proved hard to tame, ... nor can they be turned to shadows.” [Silm: Rings (288)]  Invisibility is a partial shift into Sauron’s world, and becoming a wraith (like the Nazgûl) is a complete and permanent shift. Since we’re told that Dwarves never become wraiths, it seems likely that they also didn’t become invisible.

If Tolkien ever published a definitive statement on this point, I don’t know it. Conrad Dunkerson pointed out [r.a.b.t article of 2002-08-24] that Tolkien did write this sentence in a draft of LotR: “The dwarves it is said had seven, but nothing could make them invisible.” (See “Of Gollum and the Ring” in The Return of the Shadow.) But that was not in the final, published book.

See also: Invisibility

C4. Would the Dwarves’ Rings make a Man invisible?

(added 17 Jan 2003 )

Tolkien didn’t answer this directly, but we can pretty safely infer from things Tolkien did say that the answer is Yes. For one thing, there might have been no difference between the Seven and the Nine. Also, the fact that the Dwarves don’t become wraiths (and therefore presumably don’t turn invisible) is in the nature of the Dwarves, not the nature of the Rings. Finally, of the Great Rings, Tolkien makes an exception by saying that the Three Rings don’t confer invisibility, but he makes no such exception for the Seven.

See also: Invisibility

C5. Did the Dwarves’ Rings make them wealthy?

(added 17 Feb 2002 )

Yes. The Seven Rings both inflamed the natural Dwarvish lust for gold and brought wealth to the Dwarves who bore each of them. [Silm: Rings (288-289)]

But this was not because the Seven were designed to create wealth. Rather, it was the normal functioning of any Ring of Power in enhancing the powers of its bearer. Dwarves were naturally both greedy for gold and good at creating wealth; the Seven Rings magnified both these Dwarvish traits.

How did the Seven Rings create wealth? We are not told directly, only that the Ring of Thrór and Thráin “needs gold to breed gold”. [LotR App A(III) (1110,1113)]  The Dwarves were all superb businessmen; Steuard Jensen once suggested that perhaps the Seven worked by enhancing their natural ability to drive a hard bargain and lowering the sales resistance of the people they dealt with. Perhaps “needs gold to breed gold” is the origin of the contemporary saying among business people that “it takes money to make money.” [Silm: Rings (289)]

C6. When did the Nazgûl arise?

(last revised 28 Aug 2002 )

In about S.A. 2251. This is about 550 years after Sauron took the Seven and the Nine from the Elves [LotR App B (1120)].

“Arise” here means appear, become active, play a public role as Ring-wraiths, etc. We don’t know how long before then the bearers of the Nine became wraiths. Mortals who use a Great Ring do get longer life, but we don’t know how much longer.

C7. Were the Nazgûl wearing their Rings at the time of The Lord of the Rings?

(last revised 21 July 2002 )

Though this question does occasion perennial controversy on r.a.b.t, the great weight of the evidence supports the conclusion that Sauron had them.

Evidence that Sauron had them

Most importantly, Tolkien says so in a lot of places:

(Thanks to Conrad Dunkerson for pointing out several of the above.)

From these quotes it seems fairly clear that Tolkien conceived that Sauron had direct physical possession of the Nine Rings, not indirect possession through having the Nine on the fingers of his slaves. I really don’t see any other way to read the quotes from Letters and the two versions of “The Hunt for the Ring”. Furthermore, the two quotes from The Lord of the Rings link the Seven and Nine as “held” in the same way, and we know for certain that Sauron had physical possession of those of the Seven that were still in existence.

Beyond quotes, some physical circumstances suggest that the Nazgûl did not wear their rings. These are merely suggestive, not conclusive in themselves:

Evidence that the Nazgûl still wore the Nine Rings

Only one citation goes that way, as far as I know, namely Gandalf’s remark at the Council of Elrond: “The Nine the Nazgûl keep.[LotR II 2 (267)]  In a previous edition of this FAQ I tried to explain the quote away as inverted word order for “The Nine keep the Nazgûl [in Sauron’s thralldom].” But I believe a simpler and better explanation is external: Tolkien intended at one time that the Nazgûl should still be wearing their Rings, but he later changed his mind and simply missed revising that sentence.

Conrad Dunkerson supports this view with textual evidence from The History of Middle-earth: [r.a.b.t article of 2002-02-17]: “Tolkien wrote the ‘Nine the Nazgûl keep’ line during one of the drafts of the Council of Elrond. Then much later he wrote that the Nazgûl were increased in power before the Battle of the Pelennor Fields because Sauron had returned their Rings to them. If Sauron was only returning the Rings at that point then Tolkien could not have intended that they were wearing them at the time of the Council.”

Apart from texts, some have argued that the Nazgûl must have been wearing their Rings, or else they would have aged as Bilbo did. But the cases are not parallel: Bilbo had not become a wraith, and we have no reason to think that a wraith would age or change in any way, being no longer in the physical world. Also, Gollum was centuries older than Bilbo, but he showed no signs at all of aging in the seven decades after he lost his Ring. (For that matter, Bilbo didn’t age very much after giving up the One Ring, until after it was destroyed.)

Conclusion

While not quite one-sided, the textual evidence favors very strongly indeed the conclusion that, at the end of the Third Age, Sauron had physical possession of the Nine Rings. Physical circumstances also suggest this, though other explanations are possible. But the physical evidence is well reinforced by direct textual evidence, against a single quote that says the opposite. You decide!

(What is not known is just when Sauron took the Nine Rings back from the Nazgûl, assuming that he did. We know it was some time before the Nazgûl began hunting for the One Ring, but whether it was immediately before or much earlier we cannot tell. That Sauron, even without the One, could get the Nazgûl to give up the Nine Rings, there is little doubt, since no mortal could have withheld even the One from him.)

C8. Why didn’t Sauron use the same Nine Rings to make more Nazgûl?

(last revised 18 Nov 2006 )

Probably because he didn’t need to. Sauron did not lack for servants. The rulers of Rhûn and the Harad were already tributary to him. The benefit of handing out the Nine Rings originally was not so much in creating nine Ringwraiths as in gaining the allegiance of the leaders he corrupted.

It’s at least questionable whether any new Ringwraith would have been under Sauron’s domination via the Ring mechanism. While a Man who wore a Ring would eventually become a wraith, he would be a slave to that Ring. In the Second Age when Sauron made the original Ringwraiths, he could dominate their Rings with the One, and therefore dominate the bearers of the Nine as well. But in the Third Age, Sauron no longer had the one. The existing Nazgûl were tied to Sauron not by the One Ring but by the Nine, which Sauron held. [L #246 (331)]  That raises the possibility that if Sauron gave one of the Nine Rings to another man, he would not only not get control of that Man but actually lose control of the Ringwraith who had formerly worn that Ring!

Conrad Dunkerson pointed out [r.a.b.t article of 2002-02-15]  that Sauron could probably dominate the Nazgûl even without using the One. He suggests a different reason why Sauron couldn’t make “Nazgûl armies”: “Just as any being truly mastering the One would have caused Sauron’s dissolution precisely the same as if it had been destroyed, so too would any human mastering (and thus being mastered by) one of the Nine cause its power to be taken from any previous Nazgûl just as if the Ring had been destroyed [or] rendered powerless.”

In a Usenet article [r.a.b.t article of 2006-04-11], “nfw” reminds us that Sauron also had three Rings taken from Dwarves, and he could have used them to make more Nazgûl. Why didn’t he? Two possibilities: either he already had all the Nazgûl he needed (as suggested above), or he forbore because without the One he couldn’t control the bearer of a Great Ring. (Recall that he controlled the Nine Nazgûl because he held their Rings.)

C9. What ultimately happened to the Seven and the Nine Rings?

(last revised 3 Feb 2002 )

They were destroyed, according to Tolkien: “And so indeed it has since befallen: The One and the Seven and the Nine are destroyed, and the Three have passed away.” [Silm: Rings (299)]

The Seven: Four of them were consumed by dragons, presumably while the Dwarf-lords were wearing them, long before the War of the Ring [LotR I 2 (64)]. The other three were in Sauron’s keeping. Last to be retaken was the Ring borne by the ancestors of Thorin Oakenshield. Thorin’s father, Thráin II, was captured in Mirkwood and taken to Dol Guldur (Sauron’s headquarters at the time), where he was tortured and the Ring taken from him [LotR App A(III) (1114)]. (See “Were the Rings originally intended for Dwarves and Men?” for a story about the origin of this Ring.)

The Nine were in Sauron’s keeping at the end of the Third Age.

At the time of the War of the Ring, Sauron had twelve Rings in his possession: all of the Nine, and the three of the Seven that had not been destroyed. It’s hard to see how merely having the debris of the Barad-dûr fall on them could have destroyed small metal objects, and Tolkien gives no details. But it’s a moot point: once the One was destroyed all the other Rings lost their powers. [Silm: Rings (287)]

C10. What if an Elf or Wizard had put on one of the Seven or the Nine?

(last revised 18 Nov 2006 )

Would an Elf or Wizard wearing one of the Sixteen (the Seven and the Nine) be made a slave of Sauron? In the Second Age, an Elf would certainly fall under Sauron’s domination: that’s what the One Ring did. (The Wizards didn’t arrive in Middle-earth till a millennium after the end of the Second Age. Thanks to “nfw” [r.a.b.t article of 2006-04-11] for bringing up this point.)

In the Third Age, when Sauron didn’t have the One Ring, an Elf or Wizard who wore one of the Sixteen would not have been subject to Sauron’s domination, but the corruption Sauron worked on the Sixteen would have corrupted the bearer.

Would an Elf or Wizard be made a wraith, or made invisible? That’s a harder question, and really it’s a matter of speculation. As for Wizards, it’s just my opinion, but I think it unlikely that a Wizard would be turned into a wraith by wearing a Ring, since his “native habitat” as a Maia was already the spirit world.

Tolkien didn’t tell us directly what might happen to an Elf wearing one of the Sixteen. In an early draft of LotR, Tolkien did write of numerous elf-wraiths. But his ideas of the Ring and the Rings changed quite a lot by the time he wrote the final version of the story. We might wonder whether there would be a difference between ordinary Elves and Elves who had dwelt in Valinor and now live in both the spirit and the material world.

Were any of the Sixteen ever worn by Elves? It’s quite possible. We know that the Elves were wearing some Rings at the time that Sauron made the One and set it on his finger; and we have no reason to think it was only the Three, which had been made last. We know that the Elves originally intended the Sixteen for themselves and not for Men or Dwarves. We know that the Elves had no idea Sauron was making the One to enslave them. So why would they not have been using all the Rings they made?

It’s therefore likely that the Seven and the Nine, as originally made, would not have turned an Elf invisible. There was no reason for Elves to build in invisibility for Elven users of the Rings, and those were the only planned users. If an Elf had turned invisible when putting on a Ring, that would have been unexpected and would have caused comment: the Elves would have known at once that something was up, and Sauron would have been the logical suspect.

But Conrad Dunkerson pointed out [r.a.b.t article of 2003-05-10] that Sauron not only messed with the Sixteen as they were being forged, he messed with them after seizing them from the Elves. “Sauron gathered into his hands all the remaining Rings of Power; and he dealt them out to the other peoples of Middle-earth, ... And all those rings that he governed he perverted, the more easily since he had a part in their making. ...” [Silm: Rings (288)] So it’s possible that even though they wouldn’t have made an Elf invisible before, after that time any Elf who put on one of the Sixteen would have been made invisible. On the other hand, as far as we know the Seven did not make the Dwarves invisible, so you can argue either side of this question.

But really we just don’t know. The situation never came up in any of the stories, and Tolkien hasn’t told us even as a matter of theory.

See also: Invisibility


D. The Three Rings

D1. What were the names of the Three Rings, and what were they made of?

(last revised 4 May 2002 )

They are:

It’s debatable how much to read into Fire-Water-Air. I suspect those simply referred to the colors of the stones, matching three of the four classical “elements”, earth, air, water, and fire. But it is probably no coincidence that the names for the Three Rings match the fates of the three Silmarils: one taken to the fire by Maedhros, one thrown in the sea by Maglor, and one sailing in the air with Eärendil.

Conrad Dunkerson goes further [r.a.b.t article of 2002-04-08] and states a belief that the Three Rings were “elemental” in nature. “Why give something the name ‘Ring of Fire’ if it has nothing to do with fire?” he asks. But Tolkien does not give us a lot to go on.

D2. Who bore the Three Rings?

(last revised 6 Feb 2005 )

When we list the bearers, remember that from S.A. 1600 till the end of the Second Age no Elf wore a Ring of Power. “As soon as Sauron set the One Ring upon his finger they were aware of him. ... Then ... they took off their Rings.” [Silm: Rings (288)]  During the remainder of the Second Age, until the One was taken from Sauron in S.A. 3441, the Three Rings were kept hidden.

Nenya, the White Ring

Celebrimbor gave Nenya, the White Ring, to Galadriel, and she bore it until the end of the Third Age. She used it to defend and beautify Lothlórien. But “it increased her latent desire for the Sea and for return into the West, so that her joy in Middle-earth was diminished.” [UT: GC (237)]

Galadriel advised Celebrimbor to send the other two Rings out of Eregion, west away from Sauron. He followed her advice and sent them both to Gil-galad in Lindon (west of where the Shire would be three thousand years later).

Narya, the Red Ring

Gil-galad gave Narya to Círdan Lord of the Havens. Most accounts have Gil-galad turning over the Red Ring shortly after he received it, around S.A. 1700. (A marginal note [UT: GC (237)] in Unfinished Tales suggests that Gil-galad might have kept it till S.A. 3430, when he left to form the Last Alliance; however, Christopher Tolkien points out [UT: GC (254n11)] that this statement is “at variance with the others”.)

Círdan apparently did not use it, even after Sauron’s fall removed the danger: “It was entrusted to me only to keep secret, and here upon the West-shores it is idle.” [UT: Istari (389)]

Círdan in turn gave Narya to Gandalf upon the latter’s arrival in Middle-earth, around T.A. 1000 [LotR App B (1121-1122)]. Saruman knew this and resented it [UT: Istari (389-390)] long before their confrontation in Orthanc, which leads us to wonder why he didn’t take it from Gandalf then.

(A separate Q deals with Gandalf’s possible use of the Red Ring to make fire and fireworks.)

Vilya, the Blue Ring

The third ring, Vilya, was held by Gil-galad, who “before he died gave his ring to Elrond.” [LotR App B (1121-1122)].  (Unfinished Tales is more specific: “At that time [after Sauron’s defeat in S.A. 1701] also Gil-galad gave Vilya, the Blue Ring, to Elrond, and appointed him to be his vice-regent in Eriador.” [UT: GC (237)] pointed out by Odysseus. [r.a.b.t article of 2004-09-15]  However, this is part of the same marginal note that says Gil-galad held on to the Red Ring till near the end of the Second Age, a statement that Christopher Tolkien points out [UT: GC (254n11)] is “at variance with the others”.)

Elrond tells Glóin at the council that the Three Rings “are not idle” [LotR II 2 (286)]; presumably Elrond has been using Vilya throughout the Third Age to make Rivendell the place of peace and beauty that it is.

Time line

The bearers of the Three can be charted. (Troels Forchhammer [r.a.b.t article of 2004-09-19] provided some helpful commentary relating to the Red and Blue Rings.)

Nenya
(white)
Narya
(red)
Vilya
(blue)
Second Age Celebrimbor
Galadriel Gil-galad Gil-galad
 
Círdan*
Elrond*
Third Age
Gandalf
* One note in Unfinished Tales suggests that Gil-galad held the Red Ring
till late in the Second Age and gave the Blue Ring early to Elrond; but
most accounts support the chronology shown here. See text above.

Galadriel, Gandalf, and Elrond took ship together in T.A. 3021 (with Frodo and Bilbo), wearing their rings. The Three Rings, now just ornaments and historical relics, passed out of Middle-earth, and with them passed the Third Age [LotR App B (1133)].

D3. What special powers did the Three Rings have?

We are not told clearly. Galadriel’s Ring did seem useful in preserving Lórien, and Elrond’s in defending Rivendell, but then all the Rings of Power were about preservation.

The Three Rings seem to be like the others, but without the elements that Sauron contributed. At the Council, Elrond says, “The Three were not made ... as weapons of war or conquest: that is not their power. Those who made them did not desire strength or domination or hoarded wealth, but understanding, making, and healing, to preserve all things unstained.” [LotR II 2 (286)]  They did not make a wearer invisible.

Tolkien underlines this in a letter: after Sauron’s fall at the end of the Second Age, “the Three Rings of the Elves, wielded by secret guardians, are operative in preserving the memory of the beauty of old, maintaining enchanted enclaves of peace where Time seems to stand still and decay is restrained, a semblance of the bliss of the True West.” [L #131 (157)]  “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age” says something similar: “those who had them in their keeping could ward off the decays of time and postpone the weariness of the world.” [Silm: Rings (288)]

It may be that the Three had power to give new hope. When Círdan gives one of them to Gandalf, he says “this is the Ring of Fire, and with it you may rekindle hearts in a world that grows chill.” [LotR App B (1122)]  But perhaps Círdan’s language was merely poetic. When Gandalf rekindled Théoden’s heart, it seemed that his staff was important to the process [LotR III 6 (536-537)], but there was no statement that he used his ring. See a separate Q for the question of Gandalf’s use of his ring to make enchantments with fire.

D4. The Elves were good so the Three Rings were good, right?

Not entirely.

Tolkien’s characters call the Three Rings unsullied because Sauron had no direct part in making them and also because the Elves’ purpose with the Three Rings “was in a limited way good, it included the healing of the real damages of malice, as well as the mere arrest of change; and the Elves did not desire to dominate other wills, nor to usurp all the world to their particular pleasure.” [L #181 (236)]

But even the Elves were not blameless in the making of the Rings. Tolkien wrote to Naomi Mitchison, “But the Elves are not wholly good or in the right. Not so much because they had flirted with Sauron, as because with or without his assistance they were ‘embalmers’. They wanted ... to stop its [Middle-earth’s] change and history, stop its growth, keep it as a pleasaunce, even largely a desert, where they could be ‘artists’.” [L #154 (197)]

So the Three Rings were not ultimately corrupting, like the others; but they still represented an attempt to arrest the change that is the natural order of things.

D5. Why isn’t Galadriel invisible, since she wears a Great Ring?

(last revised 7 May 2002 )

It’s not because she was an Elf; it’s because the Three Rings didn’t make anyone invisible. “The Elves of Eregion made Three supremely beautiful and powerful rings: ... they did not confer invisibility.” [L #131 (152)]

Why did the Three not confer invisibility? Because invisibility from the other Rings was Sauron’s work, and he did not help make the Three Rings.

From these facts we can infer that, if a Man or Hobbit kept and used one of the Three Rings, it would not turn him into a wraith. But that’s quite theoretical, since it’s hard to imagine any circumstance in which a mortal would be allowed to get hold of one of the Three.

See also: Invisibility

D6. Gandalf bore the Ring of Fire. Is that how he made his fireworks?

(rewritten 4 May 2002 )

Tolkien never made a clear statement either way, and opinion in r.a.b.t is divided. The majority hold that the Red Ring aided Gandalf’s uses of fire and fireworks; the minority believe that the “fire” of that Ring’s name is metaphorical. Neither side claims that the evidence is overwhelming.

You might be interested in reading the entire discussion in the thread “Gandalf and fireworks” from April 2002 in r.a.b.t. Some of what follows is drawn from that discussion.

Majority: The Red Ring helped Gandalf with fire and fireworks.

Tolkien wrote to Donald Swann: “Fireworks ... appear in the books ... because they are part of the representation of Gandalf, bearer of the Ring of Fire, the Kindler: the most childlike aspect shown to the Hobbits being fireworks.” [L #301 (390)]

Conrad Dunkerson [r.a.b.t article of 2002-04-15]  raised the possibility, extrapolating from the above quote, that not only do the Three Rings correspond to three Elements, but their bearers correspond to three of the great among the Ainur:

Minority: The Red Ring kindled hearts, not wood.

Consider Círdan’s words to Gandalf: “this is the Ring of Fire, and with it you may rekindle hearts in a world that grows chill.” [LotR App B (1122)]  And in The Hobbit Tolkien wrote that “Gandalf had made a special study of bewitchments with fire and lights (even the hobbit had never forgotten the magic fireworks at Old Took’s midsummer-eve parties, as you remember).” [Hobbit VI (91)] 

Taking those two statements together, the least hypothesis seems to be that Gandalf was good with fire and fireworks because he had studied them, and used the Red Ring to give renewed hope and courage to people oppressed by Sauron or by their fears.

In no place where I have found Gandalf using fire or fireworks is there any mention of his Ring. But there are many places where fire or light is connected with his staff:

D7. Why didn’t Saruman take Gandalf’s Ring from him?

(last revised 11 Jul 2004 )

Good question! Gandalf tells the Council of Elrond [LotR II 2 (275–278)] that he had been Saruman’s prisoner in Orthanc. Saruman knew that Gandalf had the Red Ring: “And the Grey Messenger [Gandalf] took the Ring, and kept it ever secret; yet the White Messenger [Saruman] ... after a time became aware of this gift, and begrudged it, and it was the beginning of the hidden ill-will that he bore to the Grey. ...” [UT: Istari (389–390)]

Some on the newsgroup have suggested that when he wrote the Orthanc confrontation Tolkien might not yet have decided that Gandalf would bear one of the Three. This seems possible, since Christopher Tolkien tells us [UT: Intro (12)] that the essay on the Istari was written after the publication of the Council of Elrond.

But we can also make three different story-internal explanations:

None of these is really satisfactory, but many of us prefer not to accept a story-external explanation if we can strain to find a plausible story-internal one.

D8. What ultimately happened to the Three Rings?

(last revised 14 June 2003 )

While Sauron didn’t have the One Ring, it was safe for the bearers of the Three to use them, and they did. But when the One was destroyed, the Three lost all their powers.

How do we know this? The Three Rings (like the Seven and the Nine) were originally independent, but when Sauron created the One, the others became subject to it. Somehow the nature of all the other Rings was changed so that not only were they under the control of the One but their continued power depended on its continued existence: “Now the Elves made many rings; but secretly Sauron made One Ring to rule all the others, and their power was bound up with it, to be subject wholly to it and to last only so long as it too should last. [emphasis added]” [Silm: Rings (287)]  On the next page Tolkien underlines the fact that this included the Three: “the Three remained unsullied, for they were forged by Celebrimbor alone, and the hand of Sauron had never touched them; yet they also were subject to the One” [Silm: Rings (288)]. It’s clear that the Three Rings lost all their power when the One was destroyed.

“Thus, ... when the One goes, the last defenders of High-elven lore and beauty are shorn of power to hold back time, and depart.” [L #144 (177)] For two and a half years, from 25 March 3019 to the end of the Third Age, Elrond, Galadriel, and Gandalf were just wearing interesting and historical bits of jewelry. At the very end of the Third Age, 21 September 3021, the bearers of the Three passed west over Sea.


E. The One Ring

E1. Who bore the One Ring, and when?

(last revised 5 Feb 2005 )

The Ring changed hands a surprising nine times over the 4800-odd years of its existence, though it belonged to only one of its seven bearers. “‘Then it belongs to you, and not to me at all!’ cried Frodo in amazement. ... ‘It does not belong to either of us,’ said Aragorn; ‘but it has been ordained that you should hold it for a while.’” [LotR II 2 (265)]

Since the Tale of Years documents the relevant dates quite well, here is a table of the bearers of the One Ring:

Date New Bearer How Acquired Reference
S.A. c.1600 Sauron Sauron creates it in the Sammath Naur in Mount Doom. He wore it until the end of the Second Age, both in Middle-earth and in Númenor. [LotR App B (1120)]
S.A. 3441 Isildur In the Battle of Dagorlad, in the last year of the Second Age, Elendil and Gil-galad kill Sauron’s body, and then Isildur cuts off the Ring finger and keeps the Ring, against Elrond’s and Círdan’s advice. [LotR App B (1121)] [LotR II 2 (260)]
T.A. 2 (none) The Ring slips off Isildur’s finger “by chance, or chance well used” in the reeds near the west bank of the River Anduin after he tried to escape Orcs by swimming. [UT: GF (275)] [LotR App B (1122)]
c.2463 Déagol A big fish pulls him to the bottom of the River, where he spots the Ring. [LotR I 2 (66)] [LotR App B (1124)]
Sméagol (Gollum) He murders Déagol almost as soon as Déagol reaches the river bank. About seven years later he hides in the Misty Mountains. [LotR I 2 (66)] [LotR App B (1124)]
2941 Bilbo Baggins He finds it lying on the floor of a mountain passage. Though it seemed mere chance, “Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by [Sauron].” [LotR I 2 (69)] [Hobbit V (69)] [LotR App B (1126)]
3001 Sep 22 Frodo Baggins Bilbo gives it to him: a unique event up to that time. [LotR I 2 (69)] [LotR App B (1127)]
3019 Mar 13 Samwise Gamgee He takes the Ring from Frodo’s seemingly lifeless body, intending to fulfill the Quest alone. [LotR IV 10 (756–760)] [LotR App B (1130)]
3019 Mar 14 Frodo Baggins Sam returns the Ring to him after finding him in the Tower of Cirith Ungol. [LotR VI 1 (946)] [LotR App B (1130)]
3019 Mar 25 Gollum He bites off Frodo’s finger with the Ring. Moments later, he falls into the fire and is destroyed with the Ring. [LotR VI 3 (982)] [LotR App B (1131)]

A bearer of the Ring can be defined as someone who holds it with intent to use, claim, or destroy it. That definition has to include Sam. He is rightly hailed on the Field of Cormallen [LotR VI 4 (989)] as a Ring-bearer, because when he took the Ring from Frodo’s body he intended to fulfill the Quest himself or die trying.

In addition to those who bore the Ring, we’re told of three who merely handled it, without intent to use it or in any way take ownership:

E2. What were the special powers of the One Ring?

(last revised 18 Nov 2006 )

To rule the other Rings

The One was the master ring, the one to rule all the others. Though it was forged last, the other Rings were all immediately subject to it. In fact, it controlled them so completely that their own power would fail if it was ever destroyed [Silm: Rings (287)].

Beyond controlling them, the One Ring may have actually had all the powers of the other Rings. When Tolkien wrote about “the Ruling Ring that contained the powers of all the others”, [L #131 (152)] he may have meant that in addition to its power to control the others and their bearers it also had in itself the same powers as those Rings, or maybe he was just repeating that it controlled them (in the sense that firefighters “contain” a fire).

To control the wielders of other Rings

The One Ring gave Sauron the ability to “perceive all the things that were done by means of the lesser rings, and he could see and govern the very thoughts of those that wore them.” [Silm: Rings (288)].

Apparently even Sauron could not exert instantaneous control in this way: when he set the One Ring on his finger and spoke the Ring-rhyme, Celebrimbor was aware of him [LotR II 2 (259)] but still retained enough of his own will to take off his Ring.

Those powers were in the Ring, not in Sauron: “the power of the Elven-Rings was very great, and that which should govern them must be a thing of surpassing potency.” [Silm: Rings (287)]  “A thing” must mean the One Ring. Therefore, in principle, someone other than Sauron who claimed the Ring could learn to read and control the thoughts of those who wore the other Rings—given time and practice. Galadriel confirms this when Frodo asks her why he can’t “see all the others and know the thoughts of those that wear them”. Her reply: “You have not tried. Only thrice have you set the Ring upon your finger since you knew what you possessed. ... Before you could use that power you would need to become far stronger, and to train your will to the domination of others.” [LotR II 7 (385)]  (In the same passage, she warns him, “Do not try! It would destroy you.”)

Further evidence that the power was not automatic: if it were, then Gandalf would have felt it when Bilbo wore the Ring.

To understand languages, or read thoughts?

The One Ring gave Sam the power to understand Orc-language. It’s not clear how far this “babelfish” ability extended: “Perhaps the Ring gave understanding of tongues, or simply understanding, especially of the servants of Sauron its maker, so that if he gave heed, he understood and translated the thought to himself.” [LotR IV 10 (762)]  Maybe there was telepathy there, or maybe it was mere language ability, especially the ability to understand Sauron’s slaves in Sauron’s realm.

See also: Did the Rings give the ability to read minds?

To control or influence people in general

The One Ring had other powers, less clearly specified, over ordinary mortals. Sauron was able to use it in some way to subvert the Númenóreans. Frodo was able to use it to cow Gollum repeatedly. Sam even found, in the tower of Cirith Ungol, that when he was merely carrying it Sauron’s Orcs were terrified of him.

To deceive and corrupt its bearer and others

The One Ring also had the power to corrupt its wearer and even people around it. It seemed especially dangerous to some Men of Númenórean race. When he cut the Ring off Sauron’s hand, Isildur rejected Círdan and Elrond’s advice to destroy it right away: it had its hooks in him and he even called it “precious” to him [LotR II 2 (270)]. Also, in the Fellowship, Boromir fell prey to the Ring’s temptations. However, Isildur’s descendant Aragorn and Boromir’s brother Faramir seemed able to resist relatively easily, or at least with no outward sign of difficulty.

(I based my claim for Faramir on his statement that he wouldn’t pick up the Ring “if it lay by the highway” [LotR IV 5 (698,707)] and on Tolkien’s high regard for the character — “As far as any character is ‘like me’ it is Faramir. …” [L #180 (232n)]  Also, Gandalf tells Pippin that “the blood of Westernesse runs nearly true” in Faramir, but not Boromir; [LotR V 1 (789)] this suggests that Faramir’s character is similar to Aragorn’s, and Aragorn was untouched by the Ring. But Jerry Friedman objects, [r.a.b.t article of 2013-09-16] rightly, that Faramir’s exposure to the Ring was brief, and we can’t know whether in time he would have succumbed as Boromir did or resisted as Aragorn did.)

In a way, the One Ring seems almost to operate like an addiction. Gollum traipsed back and forth over Middle-earth trying for another “fix”. Bilbo had gone “cold turkey”, not without an inner struggle; but when he saw it again in Rivendell his habit flared up again stronger than ever, just like an alcoholic who tastes a drop of liquor.

Also in common with alcohol and other drugs, the Ring seemed to get its hooks quite easily into some people (Boromir, Isildur, arguably Saruman), to be recognized as a strong but resistible temptation by still others (Gandalf [LotR I 2 (75)], Elrond [LotR II 2 (285)], Galadriel [LotR II 7 (385)]), and to hold no interest at all for others (Tom Bombadil, Aragorn and the other members of the Fellowship, Faramir, and most especially Sam, who wore it in Mordor yet took it off without a murmur and gave it to Frodo).

But even the incorruptible Sam was not entirely immune to the Ring: it was able to fill his mind with fantasies of “Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age”, and “a garden swollen to a realm” at his command. [LotR VI 1 (935)] He was able to reject these fantasies for love of his master and out of his own plain sense.

To abandon its bearer

Finally, the Ring could abandon its wearer. When it slipped off Isildur’s finger in the River Anduin [UT: GF (275)], “the Ring betrayed him and avenged its maker.” [Silm: Rings (295)]

It abandoned Gollum too. Gandalf tells Frodo “A Ring of Power looks after itself, Frodo. It may slip off treacherously, but its keeper never abandons it. ... It was not Gollum, Frodo, but the Ring itself that decided things. The Ring left him.” [LotR I 2 (68-69)]  (Troels Forchhammer drew my attention to the first part of this quote in a newsgroup article [r.a.b.t article of 2004-06-03].)

It may also have slipped off Bilbo’s finger in the Goblin tunnels. [Hobbit V (99)]

The One Ring tried to get back to Sauron, as Tolkien tells us in a Letter: “Even from afar he had an effect upon it, to make it work for its return to himself.” [L #246 (332)]  (This raises the issue of sentience of the One Ring.)

E3. How did Sauron’s Ring control Rings that were created earlier?

(added 9 June 2003 )

Tolkien didn’t explain the mechanism. But the Seven and the Nine were made with Sauron’s help, and though the Elves made the Three without Sauron’s direct help, still they used knowledge they had got from Sauron. One possible explanation (the simplest, in my opinion) is that Sauron told the Elves how to make Rings in a way that would leave him a “back door” to assert control of them at a later time. “But Sauron guided their labours, ... for his desire was to set a bond upon the Elves and to bring them under his vigilance” [Silm: Rings (287)]. This sounds like the One Ring was part of Sauron’s plan all along, and by guiding the Elves he was in the perfect position to build in hooks that would later let him take control of all the Elves’ Rings. This also helps explain how, once the One Ring had been forged, the other Rings would lose their powers if the One was destroyed.

Another possible explanation is that Sauron was a mighty sorcerer, and he cast a great spell to alter the nature of the other Rings so that the One Ring would rule them. We really don’t know, but this quote from “Of the Rings of Power” seems to favor that explanation: “the power of the Elven-Rings was very great, and that which should govern them must be a thing of surpassing potency” [Silm: Rings (287)].

A. Clausen posted some speculations on this topic to Usenet [r.a.b.t article of 2003-05-15], espousing the “back door” theory and giving some interesting details.

E4. Could the One Ring think, feel, and make choices?

(added 23 May 2002 )

(This FAQ entry is based in part on the May 2002 thread “Was the One Ring sentient?” in r.a.b.t. That word “sentient” is slippery, and discussion focused nearly as much on the question as on the answer. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language [Third Edition, 1992] defines “sentient” as “1. Having some perception; conscious. ... 2. Experiencing sensation or feeling”; science-fiction fans tend to equate “sentient” with “self-aware and intelligent”.)

Whether or not the Ring makes choices, it seems able to sense its surroundings. When it grows smaller to stay on a finger (remember that Bilbo’s was less than half the diameter of Sauron’s or even Isildur’s) or larger again to slip off a finger, [LotR I 2 (60)]  the Ring adapts to the size of the finger that is wearing it. But we must not push that too far. A thermos will keep a hot liquid hot or a cold liquid cold, but it doesn’t sense the temperature of the liquid and make a decision!

We find evidence in The Lord of the Rings that the Ring could in some sense perceive its surroundings and act accordingly. This is also consistent with the traditions of myth, where objects do think and feel. Does this mean that the Ring was alive (whatever “alive” means)? Most people would hesitate to go that far, and no one on r.a.b.t argued that the Ring could think in anything approaching the human sense.

What in the story suggests that the Ring could sense its surroundings and make decisions?

When telling Frodo about the Ring’s history, Gandalf says “A Ring of Power looks after itself, Frodo. It may slip off treacherously, but its keeper never abandons it. At most he plays with the idea of handing it on to someone else’s care—and that only at an early stage, when it first begins to grip. But as far as I know Bilbo alone in history has ever gone beyond playing, and really done it. He needed all my help, too. And even so he would never have just forsaken it, or cast it aside. It was not Gollum, Frodo, but the Ring itself that decided things. The Ring left him.” [LotR I 2 (68-69)]

And a little later, Gandalf makes the point again with more examples: “The Ring was trying to get back to its master. It had slipped from Isildur’s hand and betrayed him; then when a chance came it caught poor Déagol, and he was murdered; and after that Gollum, and it had devoured him. It could make no further use of him: he was too small and mean; and as long as it stayed with him he would never leave his deep pool again. So now, when its master was awake once more and sending out his dark thought from Mirkwood, it abandoned Gollum. Only to be picked up by the most unlikely person imaginable: Bilbo from the Shire!” [LotR I 2 (68-69)]

After abandoning Gollum and being found “by chance” by Bilbo, the Ring may have slipped off Bilbo’s finger to betray him to the Goblins near their eastern exit: “Yes, they saw him. Whether it was an accident, or a last trick of the ring before it took a new master, it was not on his finger.” [Hobbit V (99)]

This was not the first time that the Ring seemed to try to expose its new master to the Orcs. Recall its betrayal of Isildur in the River near the Gladden Fields: “There suddenly he knew that the Ring had gone. By chance, or chance well used, it had left his hand and gone where he could never hope to find it again.” [UT: GF (275)]

The evidence is open to interpretation. With Isildur’s experience as with Bilbo’s, Tolkien takes pains to keep the question open whether the Ring was acting independently or slipped off by pure mischance. On the other hand, Gandalf was very definite in telling Frodo that the Ring had “decided” to leave Gollum.

If the Ring could act to bring about its purpose of getting back to Sauron, then why did it get itself picked up by Bilbo when “an Orc [would] have suited it better” [LotR I 2 (69)]? Doesn’t such a choice argue that the Ring was not making choices?

Gandalf meets this objection: The fact that Bilbo picked up the Ring was not the Ring’s doing, and not Sauron’s. “There was more than one power at work, Frodo. ... beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker.” [LotR I 2 (69)]  In other words, someone other than the Ring chose Bilbo. (Eru? the Valar? we are not told.) On this view, where the Ring made a choice was in slipping off Bilbo’s finger and betraying him to the Orcs, as it had betrayed Isildur. And it’s quite possible that the Ring tried to betray Frodo by slipping onto his finger at the Prancing Pony in Bree [LotR I 9 (176)], though Aragorn seems to blame Frodo (“Why did you do that?” [LotR I 9 (177)]).

While these passages do suggest a sentient Ring, and most people who posted to this thread accept that interpretation, it’s possible to interpret them in other ways: perhaps the Ring operates out of instinct or like a computer program.

Some would argue that the Ring didn’t make choices any more than an ant does: that in effect it operated out of instinct, a sort of Sauron-tropism. True, in a Letter, Tolkien says, “Even from afar [Sauron] had an effect upon it, to make it work for its return to himself.” [L #246 (332)]  But that word “trying” is not conclusive: we often speak of a lower animal like an insect “trying” to do something where we don’t imply conscious thought or any awareness. We can even say that ivy “tries” to get better sunlight when it grows up the side of a house.

Tim Howe [r.a.b.t article of 2002-05-14] suggests another intriguing “non-sentient Ring” explanation: Sauron may have programmed the Ring as we program a computer or a robot. (Only some of what follows was in his article.) Computer programs can be fantastically complicated and can seem to make decisions; computer programmers even speak of a program “deciding” to do this or that. Even so, we don’t say that the computer program (or Ring) is thinking; all the sentience lies with the programmer (or Sauron).

Howe points out that the Ring’s actions could be explained by the simple program “slip on or off a finger at any time it will place an enemy in peril, and abandon an owner who holds the Ring too long without using it.” Such a program would have the effect of making the Ring turn up eventually if it were ever separated from Sauron—and as an immortal he could afford to wait. Obviously Tolkien was not familiar with computer programming and would not consciously have intended such an explanation, but that doesn’t mean we cannot use it as an analogy. We would think of Sauron not as programmer but as sorcerer, making these instructions part of the spell he cast when putting his own power into the Ring, so that it would eventually come back to him if he ever lost it. (Against this we must set the fact that Sauron did not seem very good at planning for unexpected contingencies, and ask why he would plan for being separated from the Ring when he had no reason to believe that could ever happen.)

In less modern language, we can simply say that the Ring behaved a lot like a cursed object in traditional myth. A cursed object brings bad fortune to anyone who holds it, and the bad fortune often takes the form of a series of apparent accidents—the woodcutter chopping off each of his limbs over time, the Ring slipping on and off a finger at inconvenient moments.

Some incidents in the story are hard to explain whether we think of the Ring as making choices or not. For instance, why did the Ring help Sam in the Orc-hold at Cirith Ungol? [LotR VI 1 (938)]  True, he felt an almost irresistible impulse to put it on (which would have revealed him to Sauron), but he did resist and simply “clasped it to his breast”. Even so, it made him appear great and terrible to Sauron’s servants, thus helping him rescue Frodo and continue with their quest.

The incident at Cirith Ungol perhaps helps us find a middle ground: the Ring had a limited sort of intelligence and purpose, but only limited. It grew greater and more terrible as an object the closer it got to Mount Doom, and Sam benefited from that increased stature as anyone would have. But the Ring couldn’t turn its own nature on and off any more than it could choose whom to make invisible.

Even though one can give explanations that don’t require the Ring to be sentient, having purpose and making choices, it seems likely that Tolkien intended it to be so. The Ring seems to behave in many ways like a dog separated from its humans and making its way back across hundreds of miles. On several occasion Tolkien writes that the Ring tried this or decided that, and the most economical reading is that the Ring did indeed have some will and sense of purpose. This pathetic fallacy, though a logical error in the real world, is a standard part of many myths, and seems to be part of Tolkien’s myth as well.

See also: Did the One Ring speak on Mount Doom?

E5. Why would Sauron make himself vulnerable by transferring his power to the One Ring?

(last revised 21 July 2002 )

Because he had to. :-)

He had to give his One Ring great power, “for the power of the Elven-Rings was very great, and that which should govern them must be a thing of surpassing potency.” [Silm: Rings (287)]  To do that he had no choice but to put much of his own strength and will into it. Gandalf calls it “a great part of his own former power” [LotR I 2 (65)] and “the best part of the strength that was native to him in the beginning” [LotR V 9 (913)].

Thus Sauron did not simply transfer some of his existing power into the Ring. Rather, he used that power to make the Ring a master Ring, a Ruling Ring. Think of a man using a lever to pry a boulder out of the ground, or turning a key that starts a powerful motor. Sauron with the Ring was far more powerful than he had been before; but if it were destroyed then so would be much of his power, forever.

In fact, if the Ring were destroyed—not merely taken from him—Sauron would lose the ability to have a physical body at all [L #200 (260)]. Presumably he knew this.

But Sauron simply didn’t consider the possibility that the Ring would be destroyed. “The Ring was unbreakable by any smithcraft less than his own. It was indissoluble in any fire, save  where it was made ... in Mordor. Also so great was the Ring’s power of lust, that .. it was beyond the strength of any will (even his own) to injure it.” [L #131 (153-154)]  As far as Sauron was concerned, transferring his power into the Ring probably seemed no more risky than taking a coin out of one pocket and putting it in another.

You might also be interested in a story-external reason. Tolkien wrote to Rhona Beare, “If I were to ‘philosophize’  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 externalized and so as it were passes, to a greater or less degree, out of one’s direct control.” [L #211 (279)]

E6. Who inscribed the verse in the One Ring?

(last revised 18 Nov 2006 )

Sauron did, most likely when it was forged. No one else had access to it from the time it was made until Sauron’s defeat at the end of the Second Age.

When Isildur cut the Ring from Sauron’s hand, he could read the letters “clear as red flame”, and he copied them down before they faded. [LotR II 2 (270)]  Until that point, Sauron was the only one with access to the Ring. Gandalf showed Frodo the same letters, over 3000 years later, by placing the Ring in Frodo’s hearth fire. The letters ran over the inside and outside of the Ring, and began to fade after the Ring was removed from the fire. [LotR I 2 (63)] This was not a matter of the Ring cooling, since it was “quite cool” immediately after being taken from the fire, and Gandalf remarked that it had passed through Frodo’s fire “unheated”.)

E7. Where was the One Ring while Sauron was in Númenor?

(last revised 12 Oct 2002 )

On his finger. “He naturally had the One Ring, and so very soon dominated the minds and wills of most of the Númenóreans.” [L #211 (279)]

Tolkien’s very clear statement agrees with the logic of Sauron’s character. Sauron had two choices: take the ring with him to Númenor, or leave it in Middle-earth. But nowhere there would be safe, from his point of view: while he spent decades in Númenor, anyone might have found the Ring and claimed it. Sauron would never risk that.

Some people are misled by Tolkien’s statement that Sauron “took up again” the Ring after making himself a new body [Silm: Rings (292)]. All that means is that he first completed the new body, then turned again to his plans for world domination. Steuard Jensen has written on this topic; see “Where was the Ring when Númenor was destroyed?”

See also: How did Sauron get the One Ring back to Middle-earth after his body was drowned with the Númenóreans?

E8. So why didn’t Ar-Pharazôn take the Ring away from Sauron?

(last revised 3 Jul 2005 )

Several answers are possible.

Ar-Pharazôn didn’t know the significance of the Ring. The Elves had kept the whole matter of the Rings a close secret, and anyway the later Kings of Númenor were not on speaking terms with the Elves. [L #211 (279)]  Perhaps Sauron took a calculated risk that the King would not be so petty as to order his hostage stripped of even a plain gold ring.

Perhaps Sauron made the Ring invisible while he wore it. It seemed to be a normal trait of the Three Rings, that they could not be seen while worn. [LotR II VII (384,386)]  Perhaps this was also a trait of the One Ring, or of Sauron’s power.

Or perhaps Ar-Pharazôn did order Sauron to hand the Ring over. If he did, we can be sure he could not enforce his command. Tolkien tells us “In his actual presence none but very few of equal stature could have hoped to withhold it from him. Of ‘mortals’ no one.” [L #246 (332)]  If no mortal could withhold it from Sauron, then obviously no mortal could take it from him. We can only speculate what Sauron would do if the King demanded the Ring from him: perhaps order him not only to cease demanding it but to forget he had seen it.

Tolkien himself weighed in on this issue in a letter: “I do not think Ar-Pharazôn knew anything about the One Ring. The Elves kept the matter of the Rings very secret, as long as they could. In any case Ar-Pharazôn was not in communication with them.” [L #211 (280)]  As is usual with Tolkien, multiple interpretations are possible, for instance that Ar-Pharazôn did not know that the Ring existed, or that he knew that it existed but knew nothing of its significance.

E9. How did Sauron get the One Ring back to Middle-earth after his body was drowned with the Númenóreans?

(last revised 12 Oct 2002 )

It’s difficult to imagine, at first thought. Sauron no longer had a material body; how could he move a material object?

Tolkien simply brushes the difficulty aside: “Though reduced to ‘a spirit of hatred borne on a dark wind’, I do not think one need boggle at this spirit carrying off the One Ring” back to Middle-earth after the drowning of Númenor. [L #211 (280)]  The solution is that Sauron was a Maia, one of the original Ainur. The Ainur had the power to manipulate the physical world by pure effort of will; that’s how they finished shaping Arda after entering into it in its “raw” state after creation. We know that Sauron in particular had this ability because he created a body for himself several times.

E10. Was Sauron visible when wearing the Ring?

(last revised 9 Jul 2004 )

Though Tolkien never answered this question directly, most opinion in r.a.b.t is that Sauron was visible even while wearing the Ring. Consider these points:

One wrong reason is sometimes seen. Some people argue by analogy: Gandalf wore a Great Ring and was visible; Gandalf was a Maia; therefore Maiar were not made invisible by Great Rings; therefore Sauron the Maia would also not be made invisible. The trouble with this chain of reasoning lies at the start: Gandalf’s Ring was one of the Three Rings of the Elves, and the Three didn’t make anyone invisible.

See also: Invisibility

E11. In the Third Age, having lost the Ring, why wasn’t Sauron weaker than before he had made it?

(last revised 28 Aug 2002 )

There was no problem for Sauron as long as the Ring still existed; only if it was destroyed would he be fatally weakened. [L #200 (260)]

“While he wore it, his power on earth was actually enhanced. But even if he did not wear it, that power existed and was in ‘rapport’ with himself: he was not ‘diminished’.” [L #131 (153)]

While he wasn’t actually wearing the Ring, Sauron couldn’t tap into its powers; that’s why he wanted to get it back. But his own power that he had let pass into it was still available to him as long as no one else claimed it and was powerful enough to keep it. Perhaps the chart below will help. (Similar “algebra” has been posted to the newsgroup several times, but the following is not taken from any such article, at least not consciously.)

Sauron’s native power, early in the Second Age S
A “great part” of Sauron’s power, that passed into the Ring around S.A. 1600 X
Extra (new) power in the Ring, concentrated from the “Morgoth element” of Arda (See below.) R
Total power in the Ring R + X
Sauron’s power while he wore the Ring S + R
Sauron’s power while the Ring was not on his finger but unclaimed by anyone else S
Sauron’s power if the Ring were destroyed, or if someone else claimed it and managed to keep it S – X
(very small)

While we don’t know the precise proportion of X to S, from the fact that when the Ring was destroyed Sauron died permanently (as far as Middle-earth was concerned) we can infer that by “a great part” of his power Tolkien probably meant nearly all.

Was that extra power (R in the table) actually in the Ring, or did the Ring simply enable its wielder, according to his stature, to tap into that power from the “Morgoth element” of Arda? Both Conrad Dunkerson [r.a.b.t article of 2002-08-24] and Steuard Jensen [r.a.b.t article of 2002-08-25] suggest the latter.

E12. Why hadn’t Gollum turned into a wraith long ago?

(added 17 Jan 2003 )

Gollum (Sméagol) murdered Déagol and took the Ring around T.A. 2463, and it passed to Bilbo in 2941. [LotR App B (1124,1126)]  So Gollum had the ring for nearly 500 years. One would think he should have turned into a wraith by then, but he had not even begun to fade. [LotR I 2 (68)]

Compare with the Nazgûl. Sauron got the Nine Rings somewhere in S.A. 1695–1697 and therefore gave them to men no earlier than then. The Nazgûl “first appear[ed]” around 2251, 550 years later. [LotR App B (1120)]  But we don’t know that Sauron handed out all the Rings at once; and also quite possibly he had the Nazgûl working in secret before they appeared openly. So 550 years is the outside estimate, but the actual time to create a Ringwraith could well be less than the 500 years Gollum had it.

How did Gollum resist “wraithification”, then?

First, he didn’t use the Ring much. “Gollum used to wear it first, till it tired him; and then he kept it in a pouch next his skin, till it galled him; and now usually he hid it in a hole in the rock. ... And still sometimes he put it on, when he could not bear to be parted from it any longer, or when he was very, very hungry, and tired of fish.” [Hobbit V (77)]

Second, Gollum was resistant to the Ring because he was of hobbit-kind. [LotR I 2 (67-68)]  Gandalf says Sméagol-Gollum was “akin to the fathers of the fathers of the Stoors”. [LotR I 2 (66)]  Though they are equally mortals, Hobbits do seem less susceptible to the Ring than their cousins the Men.

One inference to be drawn is that the Ring gives long life whether or not it is used, but only makes its keeper into a wraith if used frequently. [LotR I 2 (60)]

E13. Then why didn’t Gollum and Bilbo die when they lost the Ring?

(last revised 3 Jan 2004 )

The two cases are rather different, and we may gain some insight from comparing them.

Bilbo was eleventy-one (111 years old) when he gave up the Ring. [LotR I 1 (41)]  Bodily he seemed not to have aged at all since he had found it. [LotR I 1 (33)]  Even 17 years later, in Rivendell, he was not noticeably older. [LotR II 1 (246ff)]

We are not told how old Sméagol was when he got hold of the Ring, but as Gandalf describes him [LotR I 2 (66)] he sounds like a young adult. As Gollum he kept the Ring for nearly 500 years, and in that time kept his physical vigor. The events of The Lord of the Rings came nearly eighty years later, but Gollum was clearly still very physically fit, able to make long journeys on foot, climb down cliffs head-first [LotR IV 1 (637)], and overcome the young and vigorous Sam [LotR IV 1 (638)].

From the histories of Bilbo and Gollum we see that the Ring stretched out the life of its possessors like any Great Ring [LotR I 1 (45)] and also continued to influence them afterward. Gandalf alludes to this in talking with Frodo [LotR I 2 (62)]: “it might take a long while for the influence to wear off. ... [Bilbo] might live on for years, quite happily: just stop as he was when he parted with it.” True, Gandalf seems to tie this to Bilbo’s having given the ring up “of his own accord”; but Gollum did not, and yet he too seemed to “stop as he was”.

Was this preservation effect permanent, or would it have eventually worn off even if the Ring continued to exist? We don’t really have data to answer that question. Gandalf’s “for years” could mean “for a few years” or “for many, many years”; there’s no way to know. Certainly Gollum seemed as strong and healthy eighty years later as he had when Bilbo met him, aside from the effects of a long time without enough food. It seems as though giving up the Ring, or even losing it involuntarily, doesn’t restart the aging process.

We know that Bilbo’s and Gollum’s continued preservation was an ongoing effect of the Ring, and not some change it had made in their own bodies, because that effect ended with the end of the Ring. Gollum himself predicted this: “when Precious goes we’ll die, yes, die into the dust” [LotR VI 3 (979)]; in other words, with the end of the Ring he would become a 500-year-old hobbit, which of course means a dead one. Gollum was no master of lore, of course; but his inference seems reasonable.

In the event, we didn’t see this happen because the Ring and Gollum’s body were destroyed simultaneously in the fires of Mount Doom. [LotR VI 3 (982)]  But we did see the effect with Bilbo: in less than a year he had become positively elderly, looking and acting all of his 129 years [LotR VI 6 (1022ff)]. The effect may have been instantaneous, or more likely when the Ring was destroyed Bilbo rapidly began aging to where he would have been if he had never had it. It would be fascinating to know whether Bilbo in Rivendell was aware of the moment when the Ring went into the fire.

We do get one hint. Arwen arrived in Minas Tirith at the end of June, three months after the Ring went into the Fire. She must therefore have left Rivendell within a few weeks after the destruction of the Ring, yet in that short time Bilbo became noticeably aged and feeble. When Frodo asks Arwen about Bilbo’s absence from the wedding party, she responds, “Do you wonder at that, Ring-bearer? For you know the power of that thing which is now destroyed; and all that was done by that power is now passing away. But your kinsman ... is ancient in years now, according to his kind; and ... he will not again make any long journey save one.” [LotR VI 6 (1010)]  Bilbo’s preservation was “done by [the] power” of the One Ring, and therefore his vigor “is now passing away” so rapidly that within a few weeks he is too weak to travel. (My thanks to Christopher Kreuzer for drawing attention to the significance of this quote [r.a.b.t article of 2003-12-29].)

Though Tolkien never tells us in so many words, the scanty evidence available suggests that the Ring grants its possessor long life not just while he holds it but for a considerable time afterward.

E14. How could Sauron trust the Nazgûl not to claim the Ring?

(added 13 Jan 2003 )

They were utterly enslaved to Sauron and had no will of their own. The clearest statement to this effect that I know of is in “The Hunt for the Ring”: they were “his mightiest servants, the Ring-wraiths, who had no will but his own, being each utterly subservient to the ring that had enslaved him, which Sauron held.” [UT: HR (338)]

In other words, they were immune to the lure of the One Ring because they were so completely dominated by their own Rings, and they were dominated by Sauron because he held those Rings. These same factors also meant they could not be ordered to work against Sauron.

E15. When he sent the Nazgûl after Frodo, wasn’t Sauron afraid someone would use the Ring against them?

(added 13 Jan 2003 )

Yes and no, but mostly no. Of course, Sauron’s greatest fear was that someone among his enemies would claim the Ring and use it against him. But he wasn’t specially concerned about the Nazgûl falling to its power.

First, the Nazgûl were slaves of their Nine Rings, which were in Sauron’s keeping. At least in the short term, that thralldom was stronger than any commands a new Lord of the One Ring might issue.

Second, Sauron knew that it would take time for anyone to learn to use the Ring. No Ring-bearer, no matter how intrinsically great, could just pick it up and start issuing orders to the Nazgûl or anyone else (except possibly to Gollum). Galadriel alluded to this in her conversation with Frodo after he looked in her mirror: “Before you could use that power you would need to ... train your will to the domination of others.” [LotR II 7 (385)]  Until then, whoever bore the Ring would be vulnerable, as indeed Frodo was on Weathertop. If nothing else, Sauron himself could come and overawe the new Ring-lord into handing it over.

Third, Sauron expected any claim on the Ring to trigger a civil war among his enemies. Gandalf told the captains after the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, “he will look for a time of strife, ere one of the great among us makes himself master and puts down the others.” [LotR V 9 (914)]  This dissension among the captains of the West would give Sauron time to launch his own pre-emptive strike, as indeed he did after Aragorn showed himself in the Palantír. [LotR V 9 (913)]

In summary, Sauron’s fear of a new Ring-lord was that he would be left undisturbed to learn to use the Ring and grow strong enough to challenge Sauron. A newbie Ring-lord was only a potential threat to Sauron, and Sauron could take countermeasures. In particular, a newbie Ring-lord (like Frodo) could not control the Nazgûl, and would be betrayed by them into a meeting with Sauron. Sauron’s great danger was over the longer term, that after claiming the Ring a new Ring-lord would hole up in a defended place and build up his command of the Ring.

E16. In Rivendell, who put Frodo’s Ring on a chain?

(added 13 Jan 2003 )

“When he had dressed, Frodo found that while he slept the Ring had been hung about his neck on a new chain, light but strong.” [LotR II 1 (248)] We are not told who did it. It could have been Elrond, or Gandalf, or anyone. Since the Ring was not common knowledge, even in Rivendell, probably Elrond or Gandalf performed this task personally.

Though the Ring was a peril to anyone, even the Wise, there’s no need to think of Elrond using waldoes to thread a chain through the Ring and then fasten it around the sleeping Frodo’s neck. True, custody, even temporary custody, of the Ring was probably to be avoided (“No, don’t give the ring to me,” said Gandalf to Bilbo. “Put it on the mantel-piece [for Frodo]” [LotR I 1 (47)]). But merely touching it briefly did not seem to be dangerous. Gandalf handles it twice in Frodo’s parlor, once to put it into the fire and once to pick it up afterward and return it to Frodo. [LotR I 2 (63)] So there would probably be no particular danger to either him or Elrond in picking up the Ring with the purpose of putting it on its chain and returning it to Frodo.

E17. Did the One Ring speak on Mount Doom?

(last revised 9 Nov 2003 )

Most people think not. It’s one thing to accept that the Ring had a degree of sentience, quite another to say that it could actually speak. But it is definitely a matter of interpretation. Turin’s sword unambiguously spoke to him [Silm: Of Turin Turambar (225)], and therefore we cannot absolutely rule out the idea that Tolkien meant the Ring to speak. The passage in question is probably worth quoting at length:

Then suddenly, as before under the eaves of the Emyn Muil, Sam saw these two rivals with other vision. A crouching shape, scarcely more than the shadow of a living thing, a creature now wholly ruined and defeated, yet filled with a hideous lust and rage; and before it stood stern, untouchable now by pity, a figure robed in white, but at its breast it held a wheel of fire. Out of the fire there spoke a commanding voice.

‘Begone, and trouble me no more! If you touch me ever again, you shall be cast yourself into the Fire of Doom.’

The crouching shape backed away, terror in its blinking eyes, and yet at the same time insatiable desire.

Then the vision passed and Sam saw Frodo standing, hand on breast, his breath coming in great gasps, and Gollum at his feet, resting on his knees with his wide-splayed hands upon the ground.

[LotR VI 3 (979)]

The “speaking Ring” advocates interpret this to mean literally that the voice came out of the fire at Frodo’s breast, where he carried the Ring on its chain around his neck. But most people on r.a.b.t focus on the statement that Sam saw “with other vision”, and take that to mean that he was seeing a symbolic or spiritual representation, not physical reality. (This meshes nicely with Frodo’s telling Sam, in western Mordor, “I begin to see it in my mind all the time, like a great wheel of fire.” [LotR VI 2 (954)]) In this interpretation, Frodo spoke to Gollum, and the power of the Ring as he held it made Frodo appear commanding, almost godlike. The Ring was the source of his power, and thus transformed his voice into one of command as it transformed his appearance.

The reference to the episode “under the eaves of the Emyn Muil” adds strength to that interpretation. At the taming of Sméagol/Gollum, we read: “For a moment it appeared to Sam that his master had grown and Gollum had shrunk: a tall stern shadow, a mighty lord who hid his brightness in grey cloud, and at his feet a little whining dog.” [LotR IV 1 (643)]  There Tolkien makes it very clear that Sam was having a vision (just like the vision of Galadriel growing when Frodo offered her the Ring [LotR II 7 (385)]). If the earlier episode was explicitly stated to be a vision and not reality, and Tolkien explicitly linked it to the episode on Mount Doom, it seems likely that Tolkien also intended that second episode as a vision with Frodo speaking and not the Ring.

But I think the clinching argument was offered by John Yohalem in e-mail 1 Nov 2003: the phrase “trouble me no more”. It’s hard to imagine how Gollum might “trouble” the Ring, but obviously he could trouble Frodo, as he had already done many times. To me this seems conclusive: not the Ring but Frodo was speaking.

By the way, this is the only occasion in The Lord of the Rings where there’s even any question about whether the Ring spoke. At no other point in the novel did Tolkien give any indication of the Ring speaking.

See also: Could the One Ring think, feel, and make choices?

E18. When Frodo put on the Ring at the Cracks of Doom, could Gollum see him?

(added 19 Apr 2003 )

No. Immediately after Frodo made his announcement and put on the Ring, before Sam even “had [a] chance to cry out,” Gollum knocked Sam down while charging at Frodo. Sam blacked out “for a moment”, and when he came to he saw that “Gollum on the edge of the abyss was fighting like a mad thing with an unseen [Frodo].” [LotR VI 3 (981)]  Clearly Gollum saw Frodo put on the Ring and sprang at him before Frodo was aware he was under attack and could take any evasive action.

This interpretation is consistent with other story elements. We know that Gollum could not see a Ring-wearing Bilbo. [Hobbit V (79)]  At that time, Gollum was no wraith, but still a living mortal. When he tracked Frodo he had been eighty years without the Ring, and he would therefore not have gained any further abilities from it. If he couldn’t see Bilbo, he couldn’t see Frodo.

See also: Invisibility

E19. What would have happened when Frodo claimed the Ring if Gollum hadn’t interfered?

(last revised 3 Jan 2004 )

Nothing good, not even for Frodo.

Frodo would not instantly have become master of the world. Claiming the Ring is just the first step in mastering the Ring. Remember that when Frodo asked Galadriel why he could not see all the other Rings and know the thoughts of their bearers, she replied, “Before you could use that power you would need to become far stronger, and to train your will to the domination of others.” [LotR II 7 (385)]

Tolkien expands greatly on this theme in a letter. To summarize briefly: Tolkien proposed two possible outcomes after Frodo claimed the Ring at Mount Doom, if Gollum had not saved the day. Either

(a) Realizing that he could not keep the ring from Sauron, Frodo would “cast himself with the Ring into the abyss”; or

(b) The Nazgûl dispatched by Sauron to Mount Doom would have greeted Frodo as “Lord”, then coaxed him out into the open. They would not have been able to attack or capture him, but they would still be in Sauron’s control not Frodo’s. While he was distracted some of them would have destroyed the entrance to the Cracks of Doom so that Frodo could no longer harm the Ring even if he had repented. Very soon Sauron would have come, taken the Ring, and crushed Frodo utterly. “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.” [L #246 (330-332)]

E20. Who could have beat Sauron by using the Ring, then?

(last revised 3 Jan 2004 )

In a face-to-face confrontation

Possibly Gandalf might have done it: “self to self. ... It would be a delicate balance.” [L #246 (332)]  But Tolkien goes on to say that even that victory would have been a defeat: “If Gandalf proved the victor, the result would have been for Sauron the same as the destruction of the Ring. ... But the Ring ... would have been the master in the end.”

Tolkien is quite definite that, in a confrontation, not only Frodo but pretty much anyone would have handed Sauron the ring at once: “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.” [L #246 (332)]

(Aragorn was able to stand up to Sauron and wrest the Palantír from him because “In the contest with the Palantír Aragorn was the rightful owner”—and because Sauron was not quite as terrible through a Palantír as if he were in the same room. That lawful authority factor would not have helped with the Ring; quite the contrary, since the Ring was Sauron’s work.)

By military force

Tolkien says in the same paragraph [L #246 (332)] that possibly Galadriel or Elrond could have used the One Ring to throw down Sauron and seat themselves on his throne. But they would have done it by building up armies and defeating Sauron militarily, destroying him by ordinary force. “Confrontation of Sauron alone, unaided, self to self was not contemplated.”

In thinking about any such question, we must heed Tolkien’s reminder: “it was part of the essential deceit of the Ring to fill minds with imaginations of supreme power” [L #246 (332)], so perhaps Galadriel was mistaken in thinking [LotR II 7 (385)] that she would actually be able to supplant Sauron. (It’s a moot point, because she had already decided not to try.)

What about Aragorn? We are not told directly, but it seems at least possible that, if he had chosen to claim the Ring, Aragorn could have defeated Sauron militarily. After all, even when Sauron had the Ring his armies had still deserted him when faced with Ar-Pharazôn’s might. With the Ring, Aragorn and his (smaller) armies might well have been just as terrifying to Sauron’s forces as Ar-Pharazôn’s armies had been. Of course, if Aragorn had done that using the Ring, he would have become a tyrant worse than Ar-Pharazôn had ever been.

But don’t overestimate the military power of the Ring. Powerful though it may be, the Ring is not unbeatable. Even its power of command is not absolute. Remember that while Sauron was using the Ring, his own armies deserted him. They were defeated not by force of arms but psychologically: “So great was the might and splendour of the Númenóreans that Sauron’s own servants deserted him” [LotR A I(i) (1073)]. If the Ring could have made Sauron’s armies stand fast, he would have used it that way; since he didn’t, we can infer that it couldn’t.

Again, in the War of the Last Alliance, Sauron was defeated while still wielding the Ring. If Sauron could be defeated twice while using the Ring, how much unlikely is it that anyone else using the Ring could win a military victory against him?

Some have suggested that a Ring-wielder could use Sauron’s own armies (headed by the Nazgûl) against him. But the Nazgûl weren’t wearing the Nine Rings and therefore couldn’t be controlled that way. And while Sauron still lived, the Nazgûl would have held to their loyalty to him, even for some time after someone claimed the Ring. Remember that Sauron was confident enough of their loyalty despite the Ring that he sent them to hunt for it, knowing that they knew what it was.

In purely military terms, the Ring was perhaps a threat to Sauron, but far from decisive. The real issue for Sauron was that by the time someone mastered the Ring enough for it to be a factor in the military progress of the war, Sauron would already have been personally reduced to impotence, just as if the Ring had been destroyed.

E21. How did the One Ring compare to Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung?

(last revised 5 Mar 2004 )

Tolkien wrote in a letter: “Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases.” [L #229 (306)]  But you have to consider the historical context. A Dr. Ohlmarks had produced an error-riddled Swedish translation of The Lord of the Rings, with an introduction containing such gems as the remark that Sauron was an allegory of Stalin. Specifically, the quote from Letter 229 was Tolkien’s response to Ohlmarks’ claim that Sauron’s Ring “is in a certain way ‘der Nibelungen Ring’.” Perhaps Tolkien’s justified irritation led him to go for the memorable one-sentence rebuttal, even if it was not strictly accurate.

No, Sauron’s Ring was not Alberich’s Ring: Tolkien did not consciously borrow from Wagner, he was not writing an allegory of Wagner or of anything else, there were major differences between the two Rings, and the two plots are quite different. Most notably, the central theme of The Lord of the Rings is the quest to destroy Sauron’s Ring; nobody in the Nibelungenlied even thinks of destroying Alberich’s Ring. Also, of course, the One Ring started as an invisibility device, and Wagner’s Ring did not make its wearer invisible. Further, Tolkien’s idea of the Ring as the ruler of other Rings, a device for enslaving their bearers, has no counterpart in Wagner at all.

But certainly there are similarities between the two Rings. (“A Tsar Is Born” even makes a plausible case for Tolkien in fact having done some subconscious borrowing and gives some background on Wagner and his sources. [r.a.b.t article of 2002-04-11]. In a later article [r.a.b.t article of 2002-05-17], he goes on to say that Wagner invented the idea of one Ring to rule the world “forty years before Tolkien was born”, and that Tolkien came up with his idea of a Ruling Ring years after attending performances of Wagner’s Ring cycle. Anyone who wishes to claim that Wagner had no influence at all on Tolkien must somehow get past those facts. (Some have pointed out that rings of power are a common myth; but “a ring of power” is not the same thing as “a Ring to rule the world”.) The thread “Wagner and Tolkien” in r.a.b.t contains a lot of fascinating background on the Northern legends.)

Pace Tolkien, it seems clear to me that the resemblance between the two Rings does not cease with the fact that “both were round.” Here are some similar points:

Alberich’s RingSauron’s Ring
Bearer can become master of the world. Bearer can become master of the world.
The Ring was cursed, and brought misfortune to each of its bearers. The Ring was evil, and corrupted each of its bearers (except Sam, who bore it only briefly).
Fafner killed his brother Fasolt to get the Ring, then took it and hid in a cave for many years. Sméagol killed his friend Déagol to get the Ring, then took it and hid in caves under the Misty Mountains for many years.
The driving force of the story is Wotan’s efforts to get the Ring back. The driving force of the story is Sauron’s efforts to get the Ring back.
The Ring’s history ends when its former bearer Siegfried is burned in a funeral pyre, and Valhalla and all the gods burn too, and the Rhinemaidens take the ring beneath the waters. Men henceforth rule the world, with the gods gone. The Ring’s history ends when its former bearer Gollum falls into the volcano while holding it and is burned to death. Men henceforth rule the world, with the Elves departing.

Doubtless there are other similarities too. But as far as we are aware, Tolkien did not consciously borrow from Wagner’s saga in any significant way. Conrad Dunkerson points out [r.a.b.t article of 2004-02-23] that the ring Bilbo found was a plain invisibility ring and had nothing in common with Wagner; the similarities we end up with in The Lord of the Rings were created to make other elements of the story work.


Sources

Finding things in Tolkien by page number can be tricky because page numbers vary by edition, and there are many editions. I try to give references by chapter or division and by page number. You might want to refer to Larry King’s page number conversion table.

Hobbit
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit (Houghton Mifflin, 1966). Chapter number and page number are given.
L
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter (Houghton Mifflin, 1981). Letter number and page number are given. (The page numbers are the same in the 1995 edition with the “new, expanded index”.)
LotR
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings. Book and chapter number are given; page numbers are from the one-volume edition with illustrations by Alan Lee (Houghton Mifflin, 1991).
r.a.b.t
The newsgroup rec.arts.books.tolkien. A second newsgroup, alt.fan.tolkien, covers similar subjects but is not as widely propagated; many articles are crossposted to both groups. Dates of cited articles may be off by a day because of time zones.
Silm
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, Edited by Christopher Tolkien (HarperCollins, 1998), with chapter title and page number. The section “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age” is abbreviated “Rings”.
UT
J.R.R. Tolkien, Unfinished Tales, Edited by Christopher Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin, 1980). References are to “The History of Galadriel and Celeborn” (GC), “The Disaster of the Gladden Fields” (GF), “The Hunt for the Ring” (HR), and “The Istari”, with page number.

Other Tolkien FAQs

Meaning no slight to other FAQs not listed, here are the ones I refer to most frequently:

Late in 2001 I learned of the vintage Web page Rings of Power by Erik Tracy, and in July 2004 Steuard Jensen posted a link to it. It’s no longer at its original location, but can be viewed on the Internet Wayback Machine via this link. I mention it here for completeness. You might want to have a look at it, as the author and I aren’t always in agreement.


What’s New

28 Sep/6 Oct 2013 Give reasons for and against my statement that faramir was immune to the Ring’s temptation, and link to that from my comment about Faramir under Why didn’t Sauron make more Rings?

16–23 Sep 2013:

21 Aug 2012: Verify links, except links to archived r.a.b.t articles, broken by Google Groups and requiring Javascript to view.

(other changes, since first publication on 31 Jan 2002, suppressed)


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