Rings of Power
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The Rings of Power in J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-earth legendarium are magical rings created by Sauron or by the Elves of Eregion under Sauron's tutelage. Three were intended for the Elves, Seven for Dwarves, Nine for Men, and one, the One Ring, was created by Sauron himself in Mount Doom.
Sauron intended the rings to subvert these races of Middle-earth to his power, since the One Ring was the Ruling Ring that controlled the others. Sauron's plan was not completely successful, for the Elves hid their rings and did not use them while Sauron held the One, and the Dwarves' rings did not respond to the One's control as Sauron expected. But the nine mortal men who wore the Nine became the Nazgûl, Sauron's most dreaded weapons.
Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is largely concerned with the attempt of Sauron to recover the One and the efforts of the West to forestall him by destroying it. The One is destroyed near the end of the War of the Ring when it falls into the Cracks of Doom in Mount Doom. Tolkien is not entirely clear about what happened to the other rings, though he implied that the power of any that survived came to an end. After the War of the Ring, the three Elven Rings were taken by their bearers over the sea to the Undying Lands.
The making of the rings
Tolkien's essay "Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age" in The Silmarillion gives the background of the making of the rings. At the end of the First Age, Sauron evaded the call of the Valar to surrender, and fled to Middle-earth. Midway through the Second Age he came in disguise as Annatar ("Lord of Gifts") to the Elven smiths of Eregion, who were led by Celebrimbor, and taught them the craft of forging magic rings. Tolkien writes that the Elves made many lesser rings as essays in the craft, but eventually with Sauron's assistance they forged the Seven and the Nine. The Three were made by Celebrimbor himself without Sauron's assistance; they remained unsullied by his touch.
Sauron returned to Mordor, and in his forge in Mount Doom he made the One Ring, imbuing it with a large portion of his power. Its purpose was domination over the other Rings and their powers, and the opening of the thoughts and wills of their wearers to his view and control. However, when Sauron put on the One Ring and recited the formula inscribed on it:
Ash nazg durbatulûk,
Ash nazg gimbatul,
Ash nazg thrakatulûk
Agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.
One Ring to rule them all,
One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all,
And in the darkness bind them.
The Elves became aware of him and understood who he was and his purpose. They immediately took off the Three and hid them without using them. Sauron invaded the West to recover the rings that the Elves had made, and much of the West, including Eregion, was destroyed before he was driven back to Mordor. Sauron recovered the Nine and the Seven, but not the Three, which remained hidden.
The words inscribed on the One Ring come from the following verse, which describes all 20 Rings of Power:
—The Lord of the Rings, Epigraph
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.
Later in the Second Age, Sauron gave the Nine to powerful men, "kings, sorcerers, and warriors of old". Only two of the bearers of the nine rings are named or identified individually. Their leader would later become the Witch-king of Angmar, and his second in command was named Khamûl, an Easterling. Khamûl was the only one to be named. Three of the Nine were Númenórean. All Nine fell swiftly under the rings' domination. They became the Nazgûl or Ringwraiths: spirits of terror whom Sauron could command even without the One. Their lives were extended indefinitely by the rings, and they became Sauron's chief servants, especially during the first part of the Third Age when he was too weak to act on his own behalf.
Any of these Rings of Power seemed to render a man who wore it invisible. The Nazgûl could not be seen directly by mortal eyes, but wore dark cloaks to give themselves form. Frodo saw their true form when he put on the One Ring on Weathertop.
It is not clear whether the Nazgûl continued to wear their rings. Tolkien says both "the Nine the Nazgûl keep" and that Sauron had gathered the Nine to himself, though in the latter case his meaning may be metaphorical. When the Nazgûl are destroyed, no mention is made of their rings.
Also in the Second Age Sauron gave the Seven to various Dwarf-lords (though the Dwarves of Moria maintained a tradition that the ring given to Durin III came directly from the Elven smiths). Gandalf mentions a rumour that the seven hoards of the dwarves began each with a single golden ring, and although the Dwarves used their rings to increase their treasure, Tolkien does not explain how the rings accomplished this (save for a reference that the rings "need gold to breed gold"). The main power of the Seven on their wearers was to excite their sense of avarice. The wearers did not become invisible, did not get extended life-spans, nor succumb directly to Sauron's control – though he could still influence them to anger and greed.
Over the years, Sauron recovered three rings from the Dwarves, the last from Thráin II during his final captivity in Dol Guldur some years before the beginning of The Hobbit. The remaining four, according to Gandalf, were destroyed by dragons.
Until the Council of Elrond, the Dwarves did not know that Thráin had held the ring of Durin's line and had lost it to Sauron. They thought instead that it might have been lost when Thrór was killed by Azog in Moria. One of the motivations for Balin's doomed expedition to Moria was the possibility of recovering the ring. Sauron's messenger attempted to bribe the Dwarves of Erebor for news of Bilbo (the last known bearer of the One) with the promise of the return of the remaining three of the Seven and control over the Mines of Moria.
The Three were called Narya, the Ring of Fire (set with a ruby); Nenya, the Ring of Water or Ring of Adamant (made of mithril and set with a "white stone"), and Vilya, the Ring of Air, the "mightiest of the Three" (made of gold and set with a sapphire).
The Three remained hidden from Sauron and untouched by him. During the Third Age, after he lost the One, they were used for the preservation and enhancement of three remaining realms of the Eldar. Vilya was used by Elrond in Rivendell, Nenya by Galadriel in Lothlórien, and Narya by Círdan in Lindon. When the Istari, or wizards, arrived about T.A. 1100, Círdan gave Narya to Gandalf, who bore it until the end of the Third Age.
During the period of The Lord of the Rings, the Three were borne by Elrond, Galadriel, and Gandalf; but until the end of the book their rings are not seen. Only Frodo, the bearer of the One, sees Galadriel's ring, and only when she draws his attention to it. At the end of the book, these three take their rings, now visible and powerless, over the sea to the Undying Lands.
Unlike the other Rings of Power, the One was unadorned. It bore only the inscription of the incantation Sauron spoke when he made it, and even that was invisible unless the ring was heated. Though the other rings could be destroyed in dragon-fire, the One could be unmade only in the unyielding fires of Mount Doom where it was forged.
When Sauron made the ring, he was obliged to transfer much of his power into it so that it could control the other rings, themselves objects of great potency. With the ring, Sauron remained very powerful, and he could use it to dominate the will of others; he very quickly corrupted Númenor into the worship of Melkor and open rebellion against the Valar.
When Isildur cut the ring from his hand, Sauron became much weaker. He required the ring to effect his conquest of Middle-earth, and spent most of the Third Age attempting to get it back.
The ring had a great effect on the human bearers who held it in the interim. It granted them indefinite life; though the effort of living became more difficult as time went on, for it did not grant new life. If they wore it, it made them invisible, enhanced their hearing, and made the shadowy world of the wraiths visible to them. It exerted a malicious influence; Gandalf mentions that though a bearer might begin with good intentions, the good intentions would not last. The Ring would give its bearer a fraction of Sauron's power, proportionate with the bearer's strength and force of will. Gollum, Bilbo and Frodo could only become invisible, while Gandalf and Galadriel recognized that they could use the full power of the Ring, becoming even more powerful than Sauron himself, but they resisted, knowing that in the end the Ring would corrupt them. Gandalf explained to Frodo that, with great concentration and training, even he could tap into the Ring's power, but probably at the cost of his sanity.
The One Ring possessed something of a will of its own. Its only accepted master was Sauron himself, and it would seek to leave any other bearer when it would cause the greatest harm, or when it might return to Sauron. Bilbo warned Frodo of this, and Frodo kept it on a chain so that it would not slip off unnoticed. In the end, Gollum succumbs to the malevolent influence of the ring and defies Frodo to take the ring for himself – and in so doing, Gollum falls into the Cracks of Doom in Orodruin where the ring is destroyed. With the destruction of the Ring, Gandalf explains that Sauron is weakened to the point that he will never be able to materialize again.
Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring begins with a similar prologue, though longer and more detailed. The three Elven rings are shown being cast using a cuttlebone mold, an ancient primitive casting technique. Additionally, Tolkien illustrators John Howe and Alan Lee, employed as conceptual designers for the films, have cameos as two of the nine human Ring-bearers who become Nazgûl.
- Silmarillion, Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age
- Fellowship, The Shadow of the Past
- The Silmarillion, "Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age", p. 289.
- Unfinished Tales, "The Hunt for the Ring", p. 338.
- The Silmarillion, "Akallabêth, p. 267.
- Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel, "The Council of Elrond", The Fellowship of the Ring.
- The Lord of the Rings, Appendix A, "III. Durin's Folk".
- Unfinished Tales, "The History of Galadriel and Celeborn", p. 238.
- Return of the King, The Last Debate
- Tolkien, J. R. R. (1954), The Fellowship of the Ring, The Lord of the Rings, Boston: Houghton Mifflin (published 1987), ISBN 0-395-08254-4
- Tolkien, J. R. R. (1955), The Return of the King, The Lord of the Rings, Boston: Houghton Mifflin (published 1987), ISBN 0-395-08256-0
- Tolkien, J. R. R. (1977), Christopher Tolkien, ed., The Silmarillion, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, ISBN 0-395-25730-1