The greatest of all the Rings of Power and the most powerful artifact in all of Middle-Earth, the One Ring was created by the Dark Lord Sauron in the fires of Orodruin (Mount Doom) during the Second Age. His intent was to concentrate and enlarge his own power, and in time gain overlordship of all of Middle-Earth. Sauron also wanted control over the other 19 Rings of Power, which had been made by Celebrimbor and his people with Sauron's assistance.
To do this, he concentrated within the One a great part of his own fëa ("soul" or "spirit") by cutting through his hand that was holding the gold, and letting his evil bind with the molten gold. In a sense, the Ring became an extension of Sauron himself, and his power became bound to it.
It was also known as the Ruling Ring, the Master Ring, the Doom of Man, the One Ring, the Ring of Power, and Isildur's Bane. The Andvarinaut in the Völsungasaga is considered to be one of the inspirations; though Tolkien himself credited many other myths that revolve around the separation of a part of oneself to grant immortality. The story of the Quest to destroy the Ring is told in Tolkien's novel The Lord of the Rings, as is most of the Ring's history.
Though it appeared to be made of simple gold, the Ring was impervious to damage, and could only be destroyed by throwing it into the pit of the volcanic Mount Doom in which it had originally been forged. Unlike the lesser Rings, it bore no identifying gemstone, but its identity could be determined by a simple (though little-known) test: when heated in a fire, it displayed fiery Tengwar letters in the Black Speech of Mordor, forming a section of poetry from part of its lore - the Ring-inscription. When Sauron lost his fair form after the fall of Númenor his new embodiment emanated great heat, making the One Ring's lettering glow brightly,
Effects of the One Ring
Sauron forged the One Ring with the purpose of controlling the thoughts and deeds of those who wore the lesser Rings, hoping to gain dominion over the remaining Noldor in Middle-earth. However, its secondary function ended up being far more useful to Sauron in the long run; so long as he wore it, it enhanced his power in the same manner that one of the Seven or Nine would do so to its wielder. This effect applied to Sauron apparently despite the fact that the Ring's energy source was Sauron's own fea. A person with sufficient willpower and native strength — such as a Maia, Elf-lord, or some lords of Númenórean heritage — could use this power to their advantage. This can be seen by the fact that the power the ring gave was proportional to the power of the wearer; a simple creature becomes merely invisible, whereas other, more powerful ones will become nearly invincible.
When a more typical person put on the ring, he would be partly "shifted" out of the physical realm into the spiritual realm, walking its threshold. A side effect (but usually the first effect noticed) of this was that it made the wearer invisible to physical beings like living men, but highly visible to spiritual beings like Ringwraiths. This "shadow world" was the world the Wraiths were forced to live in but it was also a world in which the Calaquendi (Elves of Light) held great power. It is likely that a person trying to hide from such Elves (few still dwelt in Middle-earth in the Third Age) using the ring would be easily seen.
For mortals, the ring had several side effects, most of them negative. Like the Nine rings of Men without making the owner an apparition, it would extend lifespan indefinitely, but the person’s soul would "feel all thin, sort of stretched ... like butter that has been scraped over too much bread" (as Bilbo Baggins put it). One possible positive effect was that the Ring may have granted the wearer some understanding of the speech of evil creatures. While wearing the Ring, Bilbo was able to understand the giant spiders of Mirkwood, and Samwise Gamgee was able to understand the Black Speech being used by the Orcs of Mordor.
Gandalf held that if the Ring was worn too frequently, the wearer would become wraith-like over time; entirely subsumed into the spirit world. This would depend largely on that person's race and inner nature. Once the Ring was out of their possession, the mortal being would begin to age again. If, however, they merely kept it without using it, they were less under its power.
Because the ring was created by Sauron it became evil in itself. The ring caused those who possessed it to become obsessed with it, so much so that they might kill anyone who showed too much interest in it or attempted to touch the Ring. With an evil will of its own, the Ring would make attempts to return to its Master. It could "call out" subliminally to other persons, in an attempt to get them to pick it up or possibly kill the current owner. It was also capable of slipping unnoticed from the owner's finger, leaving him vulnerable to attack or to gain a new owner that would help get the Ring back to Sauron. Frodo Baggins was warned by Bilbo that the Ring tended to "slip away" at odd times, and compensated for this by wearing it on a chain around his neck.
In the case of Sméagol/Gollum, it didn't make him evil or corrupt so much as ugly and obsessive with the ring. Even the Elf-Queen Galadriel was able to postulate the unpleasant physical effect the Ring would have on her (beautiful, but in a terrible way) in the long-term.
Distant from Mordor, the Ring was hampered, unless its Master or other beings of power (such as Ringwraiths near the Inn at Bree) were calling to it, when it would try to respond. But in Mordor it grew so powerful that when Frodo stood on Mount Doom, Sam had a flash of sight in which not only was the Ring seen through Frodo's garments, but spoke of itself to Smeagol:
"Begone, and trouble me no more! If you touch me ever again, you shall yourself be cast into the Fire of Doom." Besides the partial, if not, complete loss of sanity over time, there were also physical consequences of carrying the ring. The skin becoming pale and thin, with the veins clearly visible, darkened eyes, teeth and nails, and to most extreme cases, such as Gollum, loss of hair and tissue, leaving the body nearly corpse-like with heavy breathing and rash voice. Although these effects were seen in two hobbits (evident in Gollum and slight in Frodo), the effects are unknown in other races, as none have held the ring long enough for them to become apparent.
History of the Ring
After its original forging (about SA 1600), Sauron wielded the Ring and battled the resisting Elves, creating the infamous War of the Elves and Sauron. At first the War went well for Sauron, as Eregion was destroyed along with Celebrimbor, the maker of the Elven Rings of Power. But later (about SA 1700) Tar-Minastir of Numenor led a great army to Middle-earth and, together with Gil-galad, destroyed Sauron's army, forcing Sauron to return to Mordor to regroup.
In SA 3261 Ar-Pharazôn, the last and most powerful of the Kings of Númenor, landed at Umbar at the head of a gigantic army to do battle with Sauron, in contention of Sauron's self-proclaimed title as Overlord of Middle-Earth. The sheer size and might of the Númenórean army was enough to cause Sauron's forces 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. Despite 1,500 years of war with Sauron, the Elves had not revealed to the Númenóreans the existence of the One Ring or any of the Rings of Power; thus, Ar-Pharazôn was unaware of it. Sauron was able to use the Númenóreans' fear of death as a way to turn them against the Valar, and toward worship of Melkor.
Although Sauron's body was destroyed in the Fall of Númenor, his spirit was able to bear the Ring back to Middle-earth and he wielded it in his renewed war against the Last Alliance of Elves and Men between SA 3429 and 3441. 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).
The Ring was cut from Sauron's hand by Isildur at the end of the Siege Of Barad-Dur in SA 3441, and he in turn lost it in the River Anduin (at the Gladden Fields) just before he was killed in an orc ambush (TA 2). Since it indirectly caused Isildur's death by slipping from his finger, revealing him to the Orcs, it was known in Gondorian lore as Isildur's Bane.
The Ring remained hidden in the riverbed for almost two and a half millennia until a Stoor hobbit named Déagol discovered it while on a fishing trip. His friend and cousin Sméagol stole the Ring and murdered Déagol. Sméagol was changed by the Ring’s influence over several centuries into the creature known as Gollum. The Ring, which Sauron had endowed with a will of its own, manipulated Gollum into settling in the Misty Mountains near Mirkwood, where Sauron was beginning to regain strength at Dol Guldur. There he and it remained for nearly five hundred years, until the Ring abandoned him and fell off his finger as he was returning from killing a goblin.
As is told in The Hobbit, Bilbo found the Ring while he was lost in the caverns of the Misty Mountains, near Gollum's lair. When The Hobbit was written, Tolkien had not yet conceived the Ring's sinister back-story. Thus, in the first edition of The Hobbit, Gollum surrenders the Ring to Bilbo as a reward for winning the Riddle Game. However, as Tolkien was conceiving the nature of the Ring, he realized that the Ring's grip on Gollum would never permit him to give it up willingly. Therefore, Tolkien revised this chapter in 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 him, but flew into a rage when he found it missing. Deducing that Bilbo had it from his last question— "What have I got in my pocket?"— Gollum chased him through the caves, not knowing that Bilbo had discovered the Ring's powers of invisibility and was following him to the cave's exit. Bilbo escaped Gollum and the goblins that inhabited the Misty Mountains by remaining invisible, but then intentionally left the Ring out of the story he told to the Dwarves he was travelling with. In fact, the version of the events that Bilbo told was the version of the first edition of The Hobbit. Gandalf, who was also travelling with the Dwarves, later forced the real story out of Bilbo, and was immediately suspicious of the Ring's powers.
Gollum, meanwhile, eventually left the Misty Mountains to track down and reclaim the Ring. He wandered for decades, and was captured when he went to Mordor. Here, he was interrogated and revealed the existence of Bilbo and the Shire.
In TA 3001, following Gandalf's counsel, Bilbo gave the Ring to his nephew and adopted heir Frodo. This first willing transfer of the Ring in its history sparked the chain of events which eventually led to its unmaking. It is one example of the frequent interplay between apparent chance and destiny, a ubiquitous theme in The Lord of the Rings.
By this time Sauron had begun to regain his power, and the Dark Tower in Mordor had been rebuilt. In order to prevent Sauron from regaining his Ring, Frodo and eight other companions set out from Rivendell for Mordor in an attempt to destroy it in the fires of Mount Doom. During the quest, Frodo gradually became more and more susceptible to the Ring's power, and it became a heavy burden on him. When he and Sam discovered that Gollum was on their trail and "tamed" him into guiding them to Mordor, he began to feel a strange bond with the wretched, treacherous creature. Gollum gave in to the Ring's temptation, however, and betrayed them to the giant spider Shelob. Believing Frodo to be dead, Sam bore the Ring himself for a short time and experienced the temptation it induced, wearing it briefly twice, although he never succumbed to its seduction.
Sam rescued Frodo and returned the Ring to him but feared that the toll it was taking on his Master was too great, and it was; although Frodo and Sam, trailed by Gollum, eventually arrived at Mount Doom, Frodo was overcome by the Ring and claimed it as his own rather than destroy it. However, he was attacked by Gollum, who bit off the finger holding the Ring before falling into the fires of Mount Doom, finally destroying the Ring.
List of Ring-bearers
In total, the One Ring existed for c. 4867 years and was held by nine people, five of which were Hobbits. Sauron was by far the one to carry it for the most time (c. 1850 years), followed by Gollum (478 years), Bilbo (60 years), Frodo (17 years) and Isildur (1 year). Tom Bombadil also wore the ring on 26 September 3018 but was apparently unaffected by it. Of those who held the ring, only Samwise Gamgee, Bilbo Baggins, and Tom Bombadil (who was not affected by the ring in any way) gave it up willingly.
|Order||Name of Holder||Since||Until||Duration|
|1st||Sauron||About SA 1600, when it was forged||SA 3441||about 1850 years|
|2nd||Isildur||SA 3441, after the defeat of Sauron, which is equivalent to TA 1||October 5, TA 2||about 2 years|
|---||the ring was lost in the Anduin||October 5, TA 2||TA 2463||2461 years|
|3rd||Déagol||Unknown date, TA 2463||The same day, TA 2463||A few minutes|
|4th||Gollum (Smeagol)||TA 2463||July, TA 2941||478 years|
|5th||Bilbo Baggins||July, TA 2941||September 22, TA 3001||60 years|
|6th||Frodo Baggins||September 22, TA 3001||March 14, TA 3019||About 17 years, 6 months|
|7th||Gandalf||TA 3018||TA 3018||A few seconds|
|8th||Tom Bombadil||September 26, TA 3018||September 26, TA 3018||A few minutes|
|9th||Samwise Gamgee||March 14, TA 3019||March 15, TA 3019||1 day|
|---||Frodo Baggins||March 15, TA 3019||March 25, TA 3019||10 days|
|---||Gollum (Smeagol)||March 25, TA 3019||March 25, TA 3019||A few seconds|
The Ring's primary power was control over the other rings, including "mastery over [their] powers" and domination of the wills of their users. By extension, the Ring also conferred the power to dominate the wills of other beings whether they were wearing Rings or not. However, this is its least accessible power, since it granted this ability in proportion to the user's natural capacity. In the same way, it amplified any inherent power its owner possessed. Finally, it at times gives its bearer (though those with more total control over the Ring's powers might be able to summon this power at will) the visage of a being great, terrible, that inspires utter fear in enemies who view it. Even though the Ring could not grant the wielder the physical power to control or destroy beings greater than Sauron, such as the Valar (although his powers rivaled theirs because of the Ring), it could be a very useful tool for domination of the mortal world.
A mortal wearing the Ring was made effectively invisible except to those able to perceive the non-physical world, with only a thin, shaky shadow discernible in the brightest sunlight. Whether immortals would be made invisible by it is unknown. The only direct example given is Tom Bombadil, who was anomalous in other ways. The Ring would also extend a mortal possessor's life indefinitely by preventing natural aging. Gandalf explains 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 immediate death or destruction; Gollum perished in the Crack of Doom while in possession of the Ring, and even Sauron himself (as the only one who could truly control the full power of the Ring) could not preserve his original body from destruction during the downfall of Númenor. Likewise, the Ring could not protect its bearer from physical harm; Frodo (while bearing the Ring) was seriously injured by the Witch King on Weathertop. In the same way, Frodo and Sauron each lost a finger while actually wearing the ring. Like the Nine Rings, the One Ring also has the effect of physically corrupting mortals who wore it for extended periods of time, eventually transforming them into wraiths. Hobbits prove to be somewhat resistant to this process, as proved by Gollum.
It might have also given its wielder the ability to read minds and comunicate via telepathy, as Galadriel suggested to Frodo when he asked if he could learn to communicate telepathically as she did. On at least one occasion, the Ring sharpened its wearer's hearing at the expense of his visual acuity, and it may at that time have granted understanding of unknown languages.
Within the land of Mordor where it was forged, the Ring's powers increased so tangibly that—even without wearing it—its wielders could draw upon its powers, possibly even inspiring or causing the wielder to draw upon its powers accidentally, at times.
Another power of the Ring was the ability to project a false vision of its wearer to observers. When Sam encountered an orc in the Tower of Cirith Ungol and grabbed 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 of this vision of the otherwise unintimidating Sam 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... [and] it held a wheel of fire." In this scene, the Ring itself spoke "with a commanding voice" foretelling the destruction of Gollum, as given above.
As it contained the better part of Sauron's native power, it was endowed with a malevolent sentience of sorts. While separated from Sauron, the Ring would strive to return to him, both by impelling its bearer to yield to Sauron or his servants, and by abandoning its possessor at key moments. For example, it slipped off of Gollum's finger when the time was right for it to be brought back into the world at large. Frodo carried it on a chain, having been warned by Bilbo that it tended to slip away if unattended.
To fully master all of these abilities, a wielder of the Ring would need an extremely disciplined and well-trained mind, a strong will, and a high degree of spiritual development. Those with weaker minds such as Hobbits and lesser Men, would have gained very little benefit from the Ring, let alone realize its full potential. Even for those with the necessary prerequisites it would have taken time to master the Ring's powers to the point at which they would be strong enough to overthrow Sauron, and, hypothetically, bring peace. Whilst this is a tantalizing prospect for some, in the end, the Ring's inherent corruption would have twisted its bearer into another Dark Lord as evil as Sauron was, or worse, regardless of their intentions at the outset.
Despite its powerful qualities, the Ring was not omnipotent, nor was its power over others absolute. Three times Sauron suffered military defeat with it in his possession, first by Tar-Minastir in the SA 1700, and again by Ar-Pharazôn in SA 3262 when Númenórean power so overawed his armies that they deserted him. He was defeated militarily once more at the end of the Second Age by the Last Alliance of Elves and Men, which culminated in his personal defeat at the hands of Gil-galad, Elendil and Isildur. Tolkien indicates that this would not be possible during the waning years of the Third Age when the strength of the free peoples were greatly diminished. At that time there were no remaining heroes of the stature of Gil-galad, Elendil, Anarion, or Isildur; the strength of the Elves was fading and they were departing en masse to the Blessed Realm of Aman; 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. In this environment, Sauron wielding the One Ring would have been able to conquer the entire continent with ease.
- "War is upon us and all our friends, a war in which only the use of the Ring could give us surety of victory."
The Ring appeared to be made of real gold, but was impervious to damage. It could only be destroyed by throwing it into the pit of the volcanic Mount Doom where it had originally been forged. Like the lesser rings forged by the Elves as "essays in the craft" (but unlike the other Rings of Power) it bore no gem, but its identity could be determined by a simple (though little-known) test: when heated, it displayed a fiery Tengwar inscription in the Black Speech of Mordor. The lines were later taken up into a rhyme of lore describing the Rings, but they were evidently part of the spell that imbued the One Ring with power, since the Elves heard Sauron utter the same words during the Ring's creation whereupon they took off their own Rings and foiled his plan.
When a person wore the Ring, he/she would be partly "shifted" out of the physical realm into the spiritual realm. There, if one managed to consciously subdue the Ring's will with ones own, one could wield all the powers that Sauron had before he lost the Ring. A side effect (but usually the first effect noticed) of the Ring was that it made the wearer invisible to physical beings like living Men but highly visible to spiritual beings like the Nazgûl. However, the Ring dimmed the wearer's sight at least of the physical world, while at the same time sharpening all of the other senses. This "spiritual world" was where the Nazgûl were forced to dwell, but it was also a world in which the Calaquendi (Elves of Light) held great power: therefore, Glorfindel was able to drive off the Witch-king at the Battle of Fornost and later again at the ford of Bruinen at Rivendell.
The enigmatic Tom Bombadil was unaffected by the Ring. This may be explained in many ways. (See the article on Tom Bombadil, which includes some theories.)
Part of the nature of the Ring was that it slowly but inevitably corrupted its wearer, regardless of any intentions to the contrary. Whether this effect was specifically designed into the Ring's magic or is simply an artifact of its evil origins is unknown. For this reason the Wise, including Gandalf, Elrond and Galadriel, refused to wield it in their own defence, but instead determined that it should be destroyed.
The ring-inscription is in Black Speech, the fictional language of Mordor, and is written in the artificial script of Tengwar. The inscription symbolizes the One Ring's power to control the other Rings of Power.
Normally the One Ring appears perfectly plain and featureless, but when cast into fire the inscription appears in fiery letters inside and outside the Ring. A drawing of the Inscription appears in Book I, Chapter 2 of The Fellowship of the Ring, "The Shadow of the Past". A transliteration appears in Book II, Chapter 2, "The Council of Elrond", where Gandalf reads the inscription: (see also Ring Inscription)Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul, ash nazg thrakatulûk, agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.
Hearing these words caused everyone in the Council to tremble. The Elves also put their hands over their ears, either due to their fear/hatred of Sauron, or else due to actual pain, the words bring.
"The change in the wizard's voice was astounding. Suddenly it became menacing, powerful, and 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 Fellowship of the Ring, Book II, Chapter 2, Page 285
Roughly 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 the Ring was first forged, Sauron spoke these words aloud, and Celebrimbor, maker of the Three Rings of the Elves, heard him from afar and was aware of his now-revealed purposes. The inscription uses Elvish lettering because all forms of writing Tolkien describes at that time were invented by the Elves.
Some recent editions of The Fellowship of the Ring accidentally omit the first two clauses of this phrase from Chapter 2, an error that was corrected by the time of the 50th Anniversary editions. The first four lines of the verse introduce three of the races inhabiting Middle-earth, as well as the eponymous title character, the Lord of 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
Gandalf first learned of the Ring-inscription when he read the account that Isildur had written before marching north to his death and the loss of the Ring. When Isildur had cut the Ring from Sauron's hand, it was burning hot, and so Isildur was able to transcribe the inscription before it faded. When Gandalf subsequently heated the ring that Bilbo Baggins had found and passed on to Frodo the inscription appeared, the wizard had no doubt that it was the One Ring.
Fate of the Ring-bearers
Of the several bearers of the One Ring, three were still alive following the One Ring's destruction: Bilbo Baggins, Frodo Baggins, and Samwise Gamgee (Although it becomes five when you count Tom Bombadil and Gandalf. Sauron can be considered as well, since he did not truly die according to Gandalf). 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 appeared to carry 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 Tol Eressea, the Elvenhome; though not the Undying Lands themselves, 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 sailed to Eressea. Tolkien in one of his letters described the process as a period of extended life and healing, after which, their spiritual scars cured, they would die in peace. No mortal can set foot in the Undying Lands.
Symbolism of the One Ring
Although Tolkien has always strongly held that his works should not be seen as a metaphor for anything, and especially not for the political goings-on of his time (for instance WW II or the Cold War; note that much of The Lord of the Rings was written prior to and during World War II and well before the Cold War), many people have felt an urge to see the One Ring as a symbol or metaphor for various things. Among them are atomic energy and the atomic bomb, which would both be anachronistic, as the Ring was invented in the late 1930s, and the atom (88) bomb did not become public knowledge until 1945. Other possible interpretations are that the ring represents the urge for power, which in Tolkien's view is always corrupting.
A recent interpretation by Danish author Peter Kjaerulff is that the Ring symbolises The Cursed Ring, a device described by both Plato in his Republic (the Ring of Gyges), and in Richard Wagner's Ring operas, besides Tolkien. Although Tolkien denied any connection, it is certainly possible that the One Ring was inspired by the central artifact of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), without being meant to be it. See also andvarinaut.
A different way to look at this question is to ask what gives the idea of the Ring its power as a story element, without considering whether it was intended as a symbol for any one thing. The notion of a power too great for humans to wield safely is an evocative one, and already in the 1930s there were plenty of technologies available to make people think of that idea. The lure and effect of the Ring and its physical and spiritual after-effects on Bilbo and Frodo are obsessions that can be compared with drug addiction, for which the Ring serves as a powerful metaphor.
- The sequence in Magyk by Angie Sage where Septimus finds the Dragon Ring is oddly similar to when Bilbo finds the Ruling Ring.
- The ring makes an appearance in the animated movie Shrek 2.