“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.”
― The Silmarillion, “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age”
The One Ring 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, mainly the Elves.
It was also known as the Ruling Ring, Great Ring of Power and Isildur's Bane because it caused the death of Isildur. In the Ring Verse it is refered Ash Nazg in Black Speech.
Origin and creation
During the Second Age, the Dark Lord Sauron persuaded Celebrimbor and his people, the Elven smiths of Eregion, to forge the Rings of Power. Secretly, Sauron returned to Orodruin and forged the One Ring in its fires.
It was made as the Master Ring, the One Ring which would control all the others, and dominate their bearers. Sauron allowed much of his will and power to go into it. Thus, he was at his most powerful when wearing the Ring; however, it also caused his power to weaken considerably if he was not in possession of it. Although it appeared to be made of simple gold, the Ring was virtually impervious to damage, and could only be destroyed in the very fires where it had originally been forged - Orodruin.
The Dark Years
When Celebrimbor and the other Ring-bearers realized Sauron's treachery, they took off their Rings and went to war with him. This war, the War of the Elves and Sauron destroyed Eregion and devastated much of Eriador. Sauron conquered and was able to claim all the Rings of Power (except the Three) and distribute them. During the era known as the Dark Years, Sauron became master of almost all of Middle-earth beyond the coasts and was known as the Dark Lord of Mordor. He raised Barad-dûr near Mount Doom, constructed the Black Gate of Mordor to prevent invasion, and raised massive armies of Orcs, Trolls, and Men, chiefly Easterlings and Southrons.
The power of the Ring allowed Sauron to link with it some of his works, such as Barad-dûr. With the Ring he controlled the Nine Rings that were given to nine mortal Men, who were corrupted and turned into the Nazgûl, his chief servants. However, he was unable to control the Seven Rings of the Dwarf-lords, because of their different, more hearty nature, and natural resistance against domination by others.
Sauron's rise offended the arrogant Númenóreans, who attacked him with great force of arms. The forces of Sauron fled the onslaught, and Sauron realized that he could not overcome the Númenòreans with by military might. Sauron allowed himself to be taken as a hostage to Númenor by King Ar-Pharazôn. There, he quickly grew from captive to advisor and was known as Tar-Mairon; he corrupted many Númenóreans using the power of the Ring and eventually convinced the king to rebel against the Valar, resulting in the Downfall of Númenor. Sauron was diminished in the destruction and his spirit (presumably with the Ring) fled back to Mordor, where he slowly rebuilt his strength.
When the Faithful Númenóreans founded the Realms in Exile, Sauron began an offense against Gondor, which was one of those realms; the Elves and the Númenóreans formed the Last Alliance against Sauron, who was vanquished by Elendil and Gil-galad. Prince Isildur then cut the ring from his fingers and took it for himself.
Isildur was corrupted by a great desire for the Ring, and he took it for his own, instead of destroying it as should have been done. Though he bought it 'with great pain', Isildur considered the Ring a most precious heirloom of his house, and documented its properties upon the a scroll he wrote in Minas Tirith. He kept it around his neck as he traveled back to Arnor; but his party was attacked by a group of Orcs during the Disaster of the Gladden Fields. Isildur jumped into the Gladden River to escape, but the Ring betrayed him and slipped off his finger, and was lost in the River Gladden River. Isildur was revealed to the Orcs when he climbed out of the river, and he was shot.
The Ring remained hidden in the riverbed for over two millennia, despite Saruman and his many attempts to locate the ring, including sending orcs to comb the Anduin. Until it was discovered on a fishing trip by a Stoor named Déagol. Once again, the Ring's evil powers acted upon Déagol's friend and relative, Sméagol, who murdered Déagol and took the Ring for himself. Over many ages, Sméagol was changed by the Ring's influence into the creature called Gollum (which is what he called himself, as it was similar to a sound he made). The Ring manipulated Gollum into settling in the Misty Mountains near Mirkwood, where Sauron was beginning to resurface. There he and the Ring remained for nearly five hundred years, until the Ring tired of him. Then, wishing to be discovered by a new keeper, and so thus find its way back to its Master, it fell off Gollum's finger as he was returning from hunting a Goblin.
The Ring was discovered in the Third Age by a hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, who had been separated from his party of Dwarves and become lost in the caverns of the Misty Mountains, near Gollum's lair. After losing the Riddle-game to Bilbo, Gollum sneaked off to fetch his 'Precious' (as he always called the One Ring), so that he could kill Bilbo and eat him. But when Gollum arrived at his island, he found that the Ring was missing, and he let out a great wail. Deducing from Bilbo's last question--'What have I got in my pocket?'--that Bilbo had taken it, Gollum chased the hobbit 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 Orcs who inhabited the Misty Mountains by remaining invisible (although he lost a few of his nice brass buttons.) When he told the story to the Dwarves and Gandalf, however, he left the Ring out of the story. But Bilbo was aware that Gandalf suspected the presence of his magic Ring. Later on Bilbo was forced to tell the Dwarves about the Ring, to preserve their lives and continue their journey to Erebor.
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 T.A. 3001, following Gandalf's counsel, Bilbo gave the Ring to his nephew and adopted heir Frodo. This first willing renunciation of the Ring in its history sparked the chain of events which eventually led to its unmaking. Gandalf was suspicious about the effect it had on Bilbo and went to Minas Tirith and found Isildur's account on the Ring, being lost since his death. He returned to Hobbiton and tested Frodo's Ring in fire, only to confirm his fears since the letters described by Isildur appeared upon it.
By this time Sauron had begun to regain his power, and the Dark Tower in Mordor had been rebuilt. The War of the Ring had begun. Gandalf urged Frodo to carry the Ring to Rivendell where the Wise would decide their actions. Despite Gandalf's warnings, Frodo did wear the Ring several times during his journey. On Weathertop he was tempted by the Ring to wear it and evade the Ringwraiths, only to make him more visible to them and to be wounded by a Morgul-knife.
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 who stung Frodo. 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, fine lines of fire, forming a script, would appear running along on the inside and outside of the Ring. The letters were an inscription in Tengwar of the Black Speech of Mordor, citing a section of poetry from part of its lore:
Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul,
ash nazg thrakatulûk, agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.
Which translates to:
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.
As a ring of power, the Ring enhanced the natural powers of its bearer, and it could also be used to decelerate decay and change in the world. But unlike the the other rings of power, the Ring was forged by Sauron alone without any Elvish assistance and was entirely evil. A person who bore the Ring could more easily dominate and command others; for instance, Sauron used this power to help convince the Númenóreans to attack Valinor, and Boromir desired to use this power to gain loyal subjects who would attack Mordor. The Ring also allowed its bearer to see and control the thoughts of anyone who bore any other ring of power.
When a Man wore the Ring, he would be partly 'shifted' out of the physical realm into the Wraith-world. A side effect (but usually the first 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), it dimmed the wearer's sight, and it sharpened his hearing. When Men wore the ring, only their faint and shaky shadow could be seen, and only in the full light of the sun. This 'shadow world' was the world which Wraiths inhabited, but also where the Calaquendi (Elves of Light) lived at the same time as the normal world and held great power: as was evidenced by Frodo viewing Glorfindel at the Ford of Bruinen near Rivendell and later explained by Gandalf. If a bearer managed to consciously subdue the Ring's will with his own, he could wield the powers that Sauron had before he lost the Ring; notably, he could control the will of others.
Part of the nature of the Ring was that it slowly and inevitably corrupted its wearer, regardless of any intentions to the contrary. Whether this was specifically designed into the Ring's magic or was 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. It may be a side-effect of the portion of Sauron's will that lies within the Ring, influencing the wearer.) 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.
The enigmatic Tom Bombadil was unaffected by the Ring, or rather, the Ring had no effect on him. This may be explained in many ways. (See the article on Tom Bombadil, which includes some theories.)
Tolkien scholar John D. Rateliff has at length discussed five different rings of invisibility which occur in works that predate Tolkien's:
- Plato's Ring of Gyges (ca. 390 BC);
- the magic ring in Chrétien de Troyes' Yvain, the Knight of the Lion (ca. 1177);
- Angelica's ring, of French Renaissance literature;
- the Fairy's ring appearing in the tale 'The Enchanted Ring' (by François Fénelon) in Andrew Lang's The Green Fairy Book (a collection of fairy-tales referred to by Tolkien in his Andrew Lang lecture);[note 1]
- the witch-maiden's ring in an Estonian folktale (ca. 1866) from the Kalevipoeg, translated as 'The Dragon of the North' in The Yellow Fairy Book (1894).
Rateliff's proposes that the ring most likely to have provided an inspiration for Tolkien is a version of Chrétien's tale, namely Owein's ring in the Welsh Owain, or the Lady of the Fountain. He also regards the rings in Fénelon's and Plato's stories as possible influences, but concludes that: 'the primary influence on Frodo's ring is in fact The Hobbit itself: here, as so often, Tolkien is his own main source'.
It has also been suggested that the One Ring may have been inspired by the Ring of Silvianus and its inscribed curse. The hypothesis is based on Tolkien gaining knowledge about the Ring of Silvianus through the archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler, for whom Tolkien wrote the text 'The Name 'Nodens''. However, Tolkien scholars Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull have pointed out that there is no 'evidence, or good reason to believe, that Tolkien was inspired by the Roman ring'.
Other versions of the Legendarium
In order to counter the notion that The Lord of the Rings was inspired from World War II, Tolkien himself provided a 'what if' scenario in the Foreword to The Fellowship of the Ring that shows what would happen should the Ring be used against Sauron. Tolkien explained that if he had WWII in mind, then the Free peoples would enslave Sauron with the power of the Ring against him, and occupy Mordor. Saruman (whose treachery would remain secret) would then use the Ring-lore found in Mordor to create a Great Ring of his own with which to challenge the self-styled Ruler of Middle-earth.