The One Ring
|The One Ring|
|Other names||The Ruling Ring, the Great Ring|
|Owned by||Sauron, but several bore it: Isildur, Gollum, Frodo, Sam Gamgee|
|Appearance||Plain gold ring with Black Speech inscriptions made visible by heat|
The One Ring, also known as the Ruling Ring and the Great Ring of Power, was an artifact created by the Dark Lord Sauron in the Second Age for the purpose of ruling over the Free Peoples of Middle-earth, especially the Elves. The story of the quest to destroy the Ring is told in The Lord of the Rings, as is most of the Ring's history.
The One Ring was created by the Dark Lord Sauron during the Second Age in order to enlarge his own might by combining it with the power of the Elven smiths, and thus to give him control over the other Rings of Power, which had been made by Celebrimbor and his people with Sauron's assistance. Sauron forged the One Ring secretly in the fires of Mount Doom. His will was then inside a Ring that could control the other Rings. Thus, he was more powerful than ever before when he wore the Ring, but became much weaker when he lost it. Though it appeared to be made of simple gold, the Ring was virtually 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.
After its original forging, the Ring was cut from Sauron's hand by Isildur, who lost it in the River Gladden just before he was killed in Third Age 2. The Ring remained hidden in the riverbed for almost two millennia, until it was discovered on a fishing trip by a Stoor named Déagol. He was murdered by his cousin Sméagol, who stole the Ring, and was changed by the Ring's influence over many ages 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 resurface. There he and it remained for nearly five hundred years, until the Ring tired of him and fell off his finger as he was returning from killing an Orc.
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. 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 riddle—"What have I got in my pocket?"—Gollum chased him through the caves, not knowing 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 Orcs who inhabited the Misty Mountains by remaining invisible, but left that part out of the story he told the Dwarves he was traveling with. Gandalf, who was also traveling 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, only to be captured and interrogated by Sauron himself, to whom he revealed the existence of Bilbo and the Shire.
In 3001 of the Third Age, following Gandalf's counsel, Bilbo gave the Ring to his nephew and adopted heir Frodo. This first willing sacrifice of the Ring in its history sparked the chain of events which eventually led to its unmaking.
By this time Sauron had begun to regain his power, and the Dark Tower in Mordor had been rebuilt. In order to prevent the recapture of the 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 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, seeing a possible future of himself that he felt he had to save in order to save himself. Gollum 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 glimpsed its power, although he never gave in to it.
Sam rescued Frodo from a band of Orcs at the Tower of Cirith Ungol and returned the Ring to him, but feared that the toll it was taking was too great. It nearly was: although Frodo and Sam, followed by Gollum, eventually arrived at Mount Doom, Frodo decided to keep the Ring for himself rather than destroy it, evincing its corruptive nature. 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, and Sauron with it.
Physically the Ring resembled a geometrically perfect circle of pure gold, this perfection and purity being part of its allure. Unlike the lesser Rings, it bore no gem. It seems to have been able to expand and contract, in order to fit its wearer's finger or slip from it treacherously. Its identity could be determined by a simple (though little-known) test: when heated in fire, the following inscription in Elvish Tengwar letters of the Black Speech of Mordor would appear on the Ring, a section of poetry from part of its lore:
- Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul,
- ash nazg thrakatulûk, agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.
These are the first two lines from the end of a verse about the Rings of Power:
- One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
- One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.
EffectsMen (but highly visible to spiritual beings like the Nazgûl), dimmed the wearer's sight, and sharpened his hearing. This "shadow world" was the world the Wraiths were forced to live in always, but it was also a world in which the Calaquendi (Elves of Light) held great power: therefore Glorfindel was able to stay the Witch-king at the Battle of Fornost and later again at the Ford of Bruinen at Rivendell.
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 was specifically designed into the Ring's magic or is simply an artifact of its evil origins is unknown. (Sauron might be expected to endow his One Ring with such a property, but he probably never intended anyone besides himself to wear it.) For this reason the Wise, including Gandalf, Elrond and Galadriel, refused to wield it in their own defence, but instead determined that it must be destroyed. It appears that Hobbits, being more pure of heart than Men, and far less powerful than Elves, were the ideal vessels to resist its seductive power; this explains why Frodo and Bilbo bore it for long periods of time with very little ill effect. Even Gollum had not turned into a Wraith after 500 years of bearing the Ring.
Inspiration and Symbolism
Although Tolkien always strongly held that his works should not be seen as a metaphor for anything, and especially not for the political events of his time (for instance WWII 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 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 "symbolise" it.
The quest to destroy the One Ring is unusual in both folklore and literary epics. Quests to regain a treasure are common in folklore and literature. Tolkien described such a quest in The Hobbit to recover the treasure stolen from the Dwarves by the dragon Smaug. Quests to destroy a treasure are seldom the theme of folklore or literature.
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.
Portrayal in Adaptations
In Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings, the wearer of the Ring is always portrayed as moving to a shadowy realm where everything is distorted. 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. This is the only time that this is mentioned in the books and could be attributed to Sauron's power increasing, and because Sam is within the borders of Mordor at the time he uses the Ring. Sam never wore the Ring in Jackson's movie.