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The One Ring is an artefact that appears as the central plot element in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (1954–55). It is described in an earlier story, The Hobbit (1937), as a magic ring of invisibility. In the sequel, The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien ascribes to the Ring a darker character, with malevolent power going far beyond conferring invisibility: it was created by Sauron the Dark Lord as part of his design to win domination over Middle-earth. The Lord of the Rings concerns the quest to destroy the Ring to keep Sauron from fulfilling his design.
In The Lord of the Rings and the posthumously published The Silmarillion, Tolkien provides a detailed internal development from the forging of the Ring to its destruction. In the fictional context of Middle-earth, these events take place during several thousand years in the Second and Third Age of Arda.
The One Ring was forged by the Dark Lord Sauron during the Second Age to gain dominion over the free peoples of Middle-earth. In disguise as Annatar, or "Lord of Gifts", he aided the Elven smiths of Eregion and their leader Celebrimbor in the making of the Rings of Power. He then forged the One Ring himself in the fires of Mount Doom.
Sauron intended it to be the most powerful of all Rings, able to rule and control those who wore the others. Since the other Rings were themselves powerful, Sauron was obliged to place much of his own power into the One to achieve his purpose.
Creating the Ring simultaneously strengthened and weakened Sauron's power. On the one hand, as long as Sauron had the Ring, he could control the power of all the other Rings, and thus he was significantly more powerful after its creation than before; and putting such a great portion of his own power into the Ring ensured Sauron's continued existence so long as the Ring existed. On the other hand, by binding his power within the Ring, Sauron became dependent on it—without it his power was significantly diminished.
The Ring seemed to be made simply of gold, but it was impervious to damage. It could be destroyed only by throwing it into the pit of the volcanic Mount Doom where it was originally forged. Unlike other rings, the One Ring was not susceptible to dragon fire. Like some lesser rings forged by the Elves as "essays in the craft"—but unlike the other Rings of Power—the One Ring bore no gem. Its identity could be determined by a little-known but simple test: when placed in a fire, it displayed a fiery Tengwar inscription in the Black Speech of Mordor, with two lines from a rhyme of lore describing the Rings:
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.
The lines inscribed on the Ring (in boldface above) were pronounced by Sauron when he forged the Ring. The Elven smiths heard him chanting them, and thereupon became aware of his purpose and took off their own Rings to foil his plan.
A person wearing the Ring would enter a shadowy world revealing the physical world from a different aspect, and from which physical objects were harder to see. The wearer was mostly invisible to ordinary beings, like Men, but highly visible to the Nazgûl. The Ring dimmed the wearer's sight, while at the same time sharpening the other senses.
The enigmatic Tom Bombadil appeared to be unaffected by the Ring and to have some power over it; when he wore the Ring, it did not make him invisible, and Frodo could not become invisible to him by wearing the Ring. Also, Tom played with the Ring like a conjurer borrowing someone's watch for a trick, seemingly making it disappear and reappear.
The Ring slowly but inevitably corrupted its bearer, regardless of the bearer's initial intent. For this reason the Wise, including Gandalf, Elrond, and Galadriel, refused to wield it themselves, but determined instead that it should be destroyed. The corrupting power of the ring was apparently stronger on individuals more inclined to evil and selfishness: it took almost immediate hold of the greedy Sméagol as soon as he saw it, and corrupted Boromir after a few months of near proximity, while its effects were only starting to be seen in the noble Bilbo after 60 years of his owning it.
The Ring had the ability to change size. As well as adapting to fingers of varying size, from Sauron's to Frodo's, it sometimes suddenly expanded to give its wearer the slip.
The words of the ring-inscription are in Black Speech, a language devised by Sauron and used in the land of Mordor. The inscription reflects the One Ring's power to control the other Rings of Power. The writing uses Elvish letters (tengwar), in a mode (i.e. orthography) adapted to the Black Speech.
Normally the One Ring appeared perfectly plain and featureless, but when heated its inscription appeared in fiery letters. A drawing of the inscription and a translation provided by Gandalf appears in Book I, Chapter 2 of The Fellowship of the Ring, "The Shadow of the Past".
Gandalf speaks the words in Black Speech in Book II, Chapter 2, "The Council of Elrond":
Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul,
Ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.
Translated, the words mean:
One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them,
One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.
When Isildur took the Ring from Sauron's hand, it was burning hot, so the letters were legible. Isildur was able to transcribe the inscription before it faded as the Ring cooled. This transcription survived in a document Isildur left in Gondor before marching north to the Gladden Fields, where he was killed and the Ring lost.
Gandalf learned of the Ring's inscription when he read Isildur's account. When Gandalf subsequently heated the ring that Bilbo Baggins had left to Frodo, the inscription reappeared. The wizard then had no doubt that Frodo's ring was the One Ring. When Gandalf recited the inscription in Black Speech at the Council of Elrond, everyone trembled:
The change in the wizard's voice was astounding. Suddenly it became menacing, powerful, harsh as stone. A shadow seemed to pass over the high sun, and the porch for a moment grew dark. All trembled, and the Elves stopped their ears.
The first Ballantine paperback edition of The Fellowship of the Ring printed the inscription upside-down. Some recent editions accidentally omit the first half of the translation in Book I, Chapter 2. This error was corrected in the 50th Anniversary edition.
In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo Baggins was appointed Ring-bearer by the Council of Elrond in Rivendell. His task was to carry the One Ring from Rivendell to the Crack of Doom in Mordor and to destroy it before Sauron or his servants could recover it. During this journey, Frodo's companion Samwise Gamgee also carried the ring briefly while Frodo was held captive in the Tower of Cirith Ungol. Near the onset of this journey the Ring was handled also by Tom Bombadil, upon whom the Ring had no apparent effect, and by Gandalf, who cast it into Frodo's fireplace to verify that it was the One Ring.
Frodo inherited the Ring from his uncle Bilbo Baggins. In Tolkien's earlier novel, The Hobbit, Bilbo found the Ring in the caverns beneath the Misty Mountains. It had been lost in the caverns by Gollum, who used the invisibility it conferred to hunt orcs to eat. Gollum, a hobbit previously known as Sméagol, had kept the Ring for hundreds of years. He had murdered his cousin Déagol to get the Ring shortly after Déagol found it in the river Anduin. Many centuries earlier the Ring had betrayed Isildur and fallen from his finger into the Anduin as he was eluding orcs—who killed him when he became visible. Isildur in turn had cut the Ring from the hand of Sauron, who had made the Ring and let much of his power flow into it. Sauron was the Ring's true master, and the only being who could bend it completely to his will.
Though Déagol and Gandalf had handled the Ring, the only individuals ever to wear it were Sauron, Isildur, Sméagol/Gollum, Bilbo, Frodo, Tom Bombadil, and Samwise. None but Bilbo, Frodo, and Samwise are actually called "Ring-bearers" in any of Tolkien's works. As Ring-bearers, they were granted passage to the Undying Lands, though Sam lived in the Shire for many years after the departure of Bilbo and Frodo before making the journey himself.
After its original forging (about S.A. 1600) Sauron waged the War of the Elves and Sauron against the Elves and all who opposed him. Sauron invaded and destroyed Eregion, and killed Celebrimbor, the maker of the three rings of the Elves. But King Tar-Minastir of Númenor sent a great fleet to Middle-earth, and with this aid Gil-galad destroyed Sauron's army and forced Sauron to return to Mordor.
In S.A. 3261, Ar-Pharazôn, the last and most powerful king of Númenor, landed at Umbar at the head of an immense army to do battle with Sauron. The sheer size and might of the Númenórean army was enough to force Sauron's armies to flee. Sauron surrendered to Ar-Pharazôn and was taken back to Númenor as a prisoner. Tolkien, in a letter written in 1958 (#211) wrote that the surrender was both "voluntary and cunning" so he could gain access to Númenor. Sauron was able to use the Númenóreans' fear of death as a way to turn them against the Valar, and manipulate them into worshipping his master, Morgoth, and performing human sacrifice.
Although Sauron's body was destroyed in the Fall of Númenor, his spirit was able to travel back to Middle-earth and wield the One Ring in his renewed war against the Last Alliance of Elves and Men between S.A. 3429 and 3441. Tolkien emphasized that Sauron used his ring in Númenor to gain complete control over its people; and while Sauron's body perished in the Fall, the Ring somehow made it back to Middle-earth. Tolkien wrote, "I do not think one need boggle at this spirit carrying off the One Ring, upon which his power of dominating minds now largely depended." (letter #211).
Sauron was killed again by Gil-galad and Elendil at the end of the Last Alliance. The Ring was cut from Sauron's hand by Elendil's son, Isildur, on the slopes of Mount Doom. Though counselled to destroy the Ring, he was swayed by its power and kept it safe instead, "as weregild for my father, and my brother". A few years later, Isildur was ambushed by orcs by the River Anduin near the Gladden Fields; he put on the Ring to escape, but it slipped from his finger as he swam across the river, and, suddenly visible, he was killed by the orcs. Since the Ring indirectly caused Isildur's death, it was known in Gondorian lore as "Isildur's Bane".
The Ring remained hidden on the river bed for almost two and a half millennia, until it was discovered on a fishing trip by a Stoor hobbit named Déagol. His friend and relative Sméagol, who had gone fishing with him, was immediately ensnared by the Ring's power and demanded that Déagol give it to him as a "birthday present"; when Déagol refused, Sméagol strangled him and took it for himself. The Ring corrupted his body and mind, turning him into the creature known as Gollum. The Ring, which Sauron had endowed with a will of its own, manipulated Gollum into hiding in a cave under the Misty Mountains near Mirkwood, where Sauron was beginning to resurface. There Gollum remained for nearly 500 years, until the Ring tired of him and fell off his finger as he was hunting an orc.
As is told in The Hobbit, Bilbo found the Ring shortly afterward while lost in the tunnels near Gollum's lair. When The Hobbit was written, Tolkien had not yet conceived of the Ring's sinister history. Thus, in the first edition of The Hobbit, Gollum surrenders the Ring to Bilbo as a reward for winning the Riddle Game. When Tolkien revised the nature of the Ring for The Lord of the Rings, he realized that the Ring's grip on Gollum would never permit him to give it up willingly. Tolkien therefore revised the second edition of The Hobbit: after losing the Riddle Game to Bilbo, Gollum went to get his "Precious" (as he always called it) so he could kill and eat Bilbo, but flew into a rage when he found the Ring missing. Deducing from Bilbo's last question—"What have I got in my pocket?"—that Bilbo had found the Ring, Gollum chased him through the caves, not realizing that the hobbit had discovered the Ring's powers of invisibility and was following him to the cave's exit. Bilbo escaped Gollum and the goblins by remaining invisible, but when he rejoined Gandalf and the dwarves he was travelling with, he decided not to tell them that the Ring had made him invisible. In fact he told them a story that closely followed the first edition of The Hobbit: that Gollum had given him the Ring and showed him the way out. Gandalf was not convinced and later forced the real story from Bilbo; he was thus immediately suspicious of the Ring.
Gollum eventually left the Misty Mountains to track down and reclaim the Ring. He wandered for decades, and was drawn to Mordor, where he was captured by Sauron's forces. He was interrogated by Sauron himself, who learned that the Ring had been found and was currently held by one "Baggins" in the land of "Shire".
In T.A. 3001, the Ring was beginning to strain Bilbo, leaving him feeling "stretched-out and thin", and so he decided to leave the Shire, intending to pass the Ring to his adopted heir Frodo Baggins. He briefly gave in to the Ring's power, even calling it "my precious"; alarmed, Gandalf spoke harshly to his old friend to persuade him to give it up, which Bilbo eventually did, becoming the first Ringbearer to surrender it willingly.
By this time Sauron had regained much of his power, and the Dark Tower in Mordor had been rebuilt. Gollum, released from Mordor, was captured by Gandalf and Aragorn, and from him Gandalf learned that Sauron now knew where to find the Ring. To prevent Sauron from reclaiming his Ring, Frodo and eight other companions set out from Rivendell for Mordor in an attempt to destroy the Ring in the fires of Mount Doom. During the quest, Frodo gradually became more and more susceptible to the Ring's power, and feared that it was going to corrupt him. When he and his faithful companion Samwise Gamgee discovered Gollum on their trail and "tamed" him into guiding them to Mordor, Frodo began to feel a strange bond with the wretched, treacherous creature, while Gollum warmed to Frodo's kindness and made at least some effort to keep his promise. Gollum eventually gave in to the Ring's temptation, however, and betrayed them to the spider Shelob. Believing Frodo to be dead, Sam bore the Ring himself for a short time and experienced the temptation it induced; he wore it briefly twice, but never succumbed to it.
Sam rescued Frodo from a band of orcs at the Tower of Cirith Ungol. The hobbits, followed by Gollum, eventually arrived at Mount Doom, where Frodo was overcome by the Ring's power and claimed it for himself. At that moment, however, Gollum attacked him and bit off his finger, taking back the Ring. Gollum was too close to the edge: as he gloated over his prize he fell into the fires of Mount Doom, taking the Ring with him, thus destroying it and Sauron's power.
The Ring's primary power was control of the other Rings of Power and domination of the wills of their users. The Ring also conferred power to dominate the wills of other beings whether they were wearing Rings or not—but only in proportion to the user's native capacity. In the same way, it amplified any inherent power its owner possessed.
A mortal wearing the Ring became effectively invisible except to those able to perceive the non-physical world, with only a thin, shaky shadow discernible in the brightest sunlight. The Ring would also extend the life of a mortal possessor indefinitely by preventing natural aging. Gandalf explained that it does not "grant new life", but that the possessor merely "continues" until life becomes unbearably wearisome. However, the Ring could not protect its bearer from destruction; Gollum perished in the Crack of Doom while in possession of the Ring, and even Sauron himself could not preserve his body from destruction during the downfall of Númenor. Likewise, the Ring could not protect its bearer from physical harm; Frodo was seriously injured by the Witch-king on Weathertop, and lost a finger when Gollum bit it off—on both occasions while wearing the Ring. Sauron himself suffered the death of his physical body at the hands of Gil-galad and Elendil while wearing the Ring. Like the Nine Rings, the One Ring could physically corrupt mortals who wear it for extended periods of time, eventually transforming them into wraiths. Hobbits were resistant to this process: Gollum had not become wraith-like despite his possession over several centuries.
The Ring might also have given its wielder the ability to read minds, as Galadriel suggested to Frodo when he wondered why he could not read the thoughts of others as she did.
Within the land of Mordor where it was forged, the Ring's power increased so significantly that even without wearing it the bearer could draw upon it, and could acquire an aura of terrible power. When Sam encountered an orc in the Tower of Cirith Ungol while holding the Ring, he appeared to the orc as a powerful warrior cloaked in shadow "[holding] some nameless menace of power and doom." The orc was so terrified that it fled. Similarly at Mount Doom, when Frodo and Sam were attacked by Gollum, Frodo grabbed the Ring and appeared as "a figure robed in white... [that] held a wheel of fire." Frodo told Gollum "in a commanding voice" that "If you touch me ever again, you shall be cast yourself into the Fire of Doom," a statement fulfilled when Gollum fell into Mount Doom with the Ring. Although the Ring was certainly invoked with this statement, it is unclear whether Frodo was prophesying (Frodo had previously seen less sinister visions while in possession of the Ring), or if Frodo was actively laying a curse upon Gollum.
As the Ring contained a large part of Sauron's power, it was endowed with a malevolent sentience of sorts. While separated from Sauron, the Ring would strive to return to him by manipulating its bearer to claim ownership of it, or by abandoning the bearer at an opportune moment. For example, it slipped from Isildur's finger during the ambush at Gladden Fields; moments later he was killed by orcs, leaving the Ring's whereabouts unknown to Sauron's enemies. It also slipped off Gollum's finger when the time was right for it to be brought back into the world at large. Warned by Bilbo of the Ring's tendency to slip off, Frodo carried the Ring on a chain.
To master all of the Ring's capabilities, a Ring wielder would need a disciplined and well-trained mind, a strong will, and great native power. Those with weaker minds, such as Hobbits and lesser Men, would gain little benefit from the Ring, let alone realize its full potential. Even for someone with the necessary strength it would have taken time to master the Ring's power to the point where he was strong enough to overthrow Sauron. Ironically, the prospect of mastery is the main appeal that the Ring holds for those who come in contact with it. The Ring appears as a symbol of hope, offering the power to defeat Sauron and bring peace to the world. Yet in the end, its inherent malevolence would twist its bearer into another Dark Lord as evil as Sauron, regardless of one's intentions at the outset.
Despite its power, the Ring did not render its bearer omnipotent. Three times Sauron suffered military defeat while bearing the Ring, first by Gil-galad in the War of Sauron and the Elves, again by Ar-Pharazôn when Númenórean power so overawed his armies that they deserted him, and again at the end of the Second Age with his personal defeat by Gil-galad and Elendil. Tolkien indicates, however, that such a defeat would not have been possible in the waning years of the Third Age, when the strength of the free peoples was greatly diminished. There were no remaining heroes of the stature of Gil-galad, Elendil, or Isildur; the strength of the Elves was fading and they were departing to the Blessed Realm; the Dwarves had been driven out of Moria and would have been unwilling to concentrate their strength in any event; and the Númenórean kingdoms had either declined or been destroyed, and had few allies.
Fate of the Ring-bearers
Of the several bearers of the One Ring, three were still alive following the Ring's destruction: Bilbo Baggins, Frodo Baggins, and Samwise Gamgee. Bilbo, having borne the Ring longest of the three, had reached a very advanced age for a hobbit. Frodo suffered both physical and psychological scars from his strenuous quest to destroy the Ring. Samwise, having only briefly kept the Ring, was affected the least and simply carried on a normal life following the Ring's destruction.
In consideration of the trials the Ring-bearers had endured, special dispensation was granted them by the Valar to travel to the Undying Lands, where it was hoped they could find rest and healing. At the close of The Return of the King, Bilbo and Frodo embark for the voyage to the West along with Galadriel, Elrond, and many of their folk, as well as Gandalf. Near the end of his life, Samwise is also said to have been taken to the Undying Lands, after living in the Shire for many years and raising a large family.
Tolkien emphasized that the restorative sojourn of the Ring-bearers in the Undying Lands would not have been permanent. As mortals, subject to the Gift of Men, they would eventually die and leave the world of Eä.
Tolkien wrote the following about the idea behind the One Ring: "I should say that it was a mythical way of representing the truth that potency (or perhaps potentiality) if it is to be exercised, and produce results, has to be externalized and so as it were passes, to a greater or lesser degree, out of one's direct control." (Letter #211, 1958).
Tolkien always strongly held that The Lord of the Rings was not allegorical, particularly in reference to political events of his time such as World War II or the Cold War. At the same time he conceded "applicability" as being within the "freedom" of the reader, and indeed many people have been inclined to view the One Ring as a symbol or metaphor. The notion of a power too great for humans to safely possess is an evocative one, and already in the 1930s there were technologies available to suggest the idea. By the time the work was published, though not when most of it was written, the existence of nuclear power and nuclear weapons were common knowledge, and the Ring was often taken as symbolic of them. The effect of the Ring and its physical and spiritual after-effects on Bilbo and Frodo are obsessions that have been compared with drug addiction; actor Andy Serkis who played Gollum in the film trilogy cited drug addiction as an inspiration for his performance.
Parallels have been drawn between the literary device of Tolkien's Cursed Ring and the titular ring in Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen. Tolkien dismissed critics' direct comparisons to Wagner, telling his publisher, "Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases." According to Humphrey Carpenter's biography of Tolkien, the author held Wagner's interpretation of the relevant Germanic myths in contempt. In the contrary sense, some critics hold that Tolkien's work borrows so liberally from Wagner that Tolkien's work exists in the shadow of Wagner's. Others, such as Tom Shippey and Gloriana St. Clair, attribute the resemblances to the fact that Tolkien and Wagner have created homologue works based in the same sources. However, Shippey and other researchers have written on an intermediary position, stating that both the authors, indeed, used the same source materials but that Tolkien was, in fact, indebted to some of the original developments, insights and artistic uses made upon those sources that first appeared in Wagner, and sought to improve upon them.
In The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, the wearer of the Ring is always portrayed as moving through a shadowy realm where everything is distorted. In the book, neither Bilbo Baggins nor Frodo Baggins ever mentioned anything about this while using the Ring, but when Sam puts on the Ring at the end of The Two Towers he does experience something similar to this. Sam never wore the Ring on screen in Jackson's films. The actual Ring for the movies was designed and created by Jens Hansen Gold & Silversmith in Nelson, New Zealand. In The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), Gandalf (Ian McKellen) pronounces the Ring-inscription in a slightly different manner and at a different time.
- Tolkien, J. R. R. (1954), The Fellowship of the Ring, The Lord of the Rings, Boston: Houghton Mifflin (published 1987), "The Shadow of the Past", ISBN 0-395-08254-4
- Tolkien, J. R. R. (1977), Christopher Tolkien, ed., The Silmarillion, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, "Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age", p. 287–288, ISBN 0-395-25730-1
- Carpenter, Humphrey, ed. (1981), The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, "Letter 131", p. 153, ISBN 0-395-31555-7
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, "The Shadow of the Past", p. 61 (Houghton Mifflin, 50th Anniversary Edition, Boston & New York, 2004).
- J R R Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings. George Allen & Unwin, London, 1968. ISBN 0-04-823087-1. Page 60.
- For example, The Fellowship of the Ring, ISBN 0-618-00222-7, from the Houghton-Mifflin boxed paperback set of 1999.
- Carpenter 1981, #131 pg 152
- Carpenter 1981, #246 pg 332
- Letters, Number 246, p. 328.
- Carpenter 1981, #203
- Carpenter 1981, #226
- "Andy Serkis BBC interview". BBC News. March 21, 2003. Retrieved January 6, 2010
- Alex Ross, "The Ring and the Rings> Wagner vs Tolkien", The New Yorker, December 22, 2003
- Carpenter 1981, #229
- Carpenter, Humphrey (1977), Tolkien: A Biography, New York: Ballantine Books, ISBN 0-04-928037-6
- Tom Shippey,The Road to Middle-earth, page 296
- "CMU Libraries: Book: Tolkien's Cauldron". Shelf1.library.cmu.edu. 2001-10-11. Retrieved 2011-11-16.
- "Project MUSE - Tolkien Studies - Roots and Branches: Selected Papers on Tolkien (review)". Muse.jhu.edu. Retrieved 2011-11-16.
- Roots and Branches
- Carpenter, Humphrey, ed. (1981), The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, ISBN 0-395-31555-7