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The One Ring is an artifact that appears as the central plot element in J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-earth fantasy fiction. It is described in an earlier story, The Hobbit (1937), as a magic ring of invisibility. The sequel The Lord of the Rings (1954–55) describes its powers as being more encompassing than invisibility, and states that the Ring is in fact malevolent. The Lord of the Rings concerns the quest to destroy the Ring, which was created by the primary antagonist, Sauron.

Literature

Description

The One Ring was created by the Dark Lord Sauron during the Second Age in order 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.

He 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 native 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.

Appearance

The Ring seemed simply to be made of gold, but was impervious to damage. It could be destroyed only by throwing it into the pit of the volcanic Mount Doom where it had originally been forged. Though it was thought to be vulnerable to dragon fire, no dragon remained with fire hot enough to harm it. Like some 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, with 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 (the ones bolded in the translation above) were evidently also part of the spell that imbued the One Ring with power; for the Elven smiths heard Sauron utter these words during the Ring's creation, whereupon they 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; according to the story, he was able to make it disappear and reappear, whereas when he wore the Ring, it did not make him invisible.

The Ring slowly but inevitably corrupted its bearer, regardless of the bearer's initial intent. Whether this effect was specifically designed into the Ring's magic or simply an artifact of its evil origins is unknown. For this reason the Wise, including Gandalf, Elrond, and Galadriel, refused to wield it themselves, but determined instead that it should be destroyed.

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 in order to give its wearer the slip.

Inscription

The ring-inscription is in Black Speech, the fictional language of Mordor, and is written in the artificial script of Tengwar. The inscription embodies the One Ring's power to control the other Rings of Power. The inscription uses Elvish lettering because all forms of writing Tolkien describes at that time were invented by the Elves.

Normally the One Ring appeared perfectly plain and featureless, but when cast into fire the inscription appeared in fiery letters on the inner and outer surface of 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 I, Chapter 2, "A Shadow of the Past", where Gandalf translated the inscription:



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.


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, and the wizard then had no doubt that it 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 Chapter 2, an error corrected for the 50th Anniversary edition.

Ring-bearers

The term Ring-bearer is used in The Lord of the Rings to describe a person who has possession of the One Ring. The term is also used to refer to bearers of other Rings of Power.

In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo Baggins is appointed to be the Ring-bearer by the Council of Elrond in Rivendell. He was to carry the One Ring from Rivendell to the Crack of Doom in Mordor and destroy it before Sauron's servants, the Ringwraiths, could retrieve it.

Two other hobbits also carried the Ring: Bilbo Baggins (who found the Ring in Tolkien's earlier novel, The Hobbit) and Frodo's companion Samwise Gamgee (who carried it briefly in Mordor). As Ring-bearers they were granted passage to the Undying Lands, though Sam lived in the Shire for many years after the departure of Frodo and Bilbo before making the journey himself.

Others wore the Ring during its existence, but were not actually called "Ring-bearers" in any Tolkien work. They include:
  • Sauron, who made the One Ring and put much of his essence into it, who was the only being who could bend it to his will, and who was its true master.
  • Isildur, who cut it from Sauron's finger and bore it until it slipped off into the River Anduin just before his death.
  • Sméagol, who murdered his friend Déagol to get it. He changed over time into Gollum, and the Ring gave him unnaturally long life. After Gollum hid under the Misty Mountains for hundreds of years, the Ring abandoned him, and Bilbo Baggins picked it up. Gollum later took it back from Frodo before inadvertently destroying it and himself.
  • Tom Bombadil, on whom it had no effect.


At least two others handled the Ring but did not actually wear it: Déagol, who found it in the River Anduin but was murdered soon after, and Gandalf, who cast it into Frodo's fireplace to test whether it was the One Ring.

History

After its original forging (about ) Sauron wielded the ring and waged the War of the Elves and Sauron against the Elves and all others who opposed him. At first the war went well for Sauron and Eregion was destroyed, along with 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 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. Sauron was able to use the Númenóreans' fear of death as a way to turn them against the Valar, and toward Melkor-worship and 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 such 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 Isildur on the slopes of Mount Doom. Though counselled to destroy the Ring, he kept it safe instead, "as weregild for my father, and my brother". Isildur in turn 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 in the river bed for almost two and a half millennia, until it was discovered on a fishing trip by a Stoor Hobbit named Déagol. He was murdered by his friend and relative Sméagol, who stole the Ring and was changed by its 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 hiding under the Misty Mountains near Mirkwood, where Sauron was beginning to resurface. There Gollum remained for nearly five hundred years, until the Ring tired of him and fell off his finger as he was hunting a goblin.

As is told in The Hobbit, Bilbo found the Ring shortly afterward while lost in the goblin 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, eventually to be captured and interrogated by Sauron himself, to whom he revealed the existence of Bilbo and the Shire.

In , following Gandalf's counsel, Bilbo gave the Ring to his adopted heir Frodo. This first willing surrender of the Ring sparks the chain of events that eventually led to its unmaking. It is one example of the frequent interplay between apparent chance and destiny, a common theme in The Lord of the Rings.

By this time Sauron had regained much of his power, and the Dark Tower in Mordor had been rebuilt. In order 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 Sam 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, seeing a possible future of 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 experienced the temptation it induced; he wore it briefly twice but never succumbed to its deeper temptation.

Sam rescued Frodo from a band of orcs at the Tower of Cirith Ungol. He returned the Ring to Frodo but feared that the toll it was taking was too great. And in the end, it was: although Frodo and Sam, followed by Gollum, eventually arrived at Mount Doom, Frodo was overcome by its corrupting nature and claimed the Ring for himself rather than destroy it. But 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.

Powers

The Ring's primary power was control of the other Rings of Power, 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.

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, over whom the Ring seemed to have no power. The Ring would also extend a mortal possessor's life indefinitely by preventing natural ageing. 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 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 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, 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. Seemingly, the Ring actually in some way inspired or caused its wielders to access its powers. One power the Ring could give was an aura of terrible power which would emanate from the Ring and onto its wielder. When Sam encountered an orc in the Tower of Cirith Ungol and held 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, Frodo also accessed a second power of the Ring. 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 a fate of Gollum (Frodo previously had less sinister visions while in possession of the Ring), or if Frodo was laying a curse upon Gollum.

As it contained a large 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 it were not attended to otherwise.

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 realized its full potential. Even for someone with the necessary prerequisites it would have taken time to master the Ring's powers to the point where he was strong enough to overthrow Sauron. Yet 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 his intentions at the outset. Ironically, this is the main appeal that the ring holds over all those who come in contact with it. It is seen as a symbol of hope for anyone strong enough to dominate it, that they would have the power to defeat Sauron and bring peace to the world.

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 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 at the hands of Gil-galad and Elendil. Tolkien indicates that this would not have been 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, or Isildur; the strength of the Elves was fading and they were departing 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.

Fate of Ringbearers

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. 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 Ringbearers 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.

Tolkien emphasized that the restorative sojourn of the Ring-bearers in the Undying Lands would not have been permanent; as mortals, the Gift of the One would eventually lead them to die and leave the world of Ëa.

Symbolism

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.

Adaptations

In the 1981 BBC Radio serial of The Lord of the Rings, the Nazgûl chant the Ring-inscription.

In Peter Jackson's 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 Zealandmarker. 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.

See also



Notes

  1. J R R Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings. George Allen & Unwin, London, 1968. ISBN 0-04-823087-1. Page 60.
  2. Letters, Number 246, p. 328.
  3. Alex Ross, "The Ring and the Rings> Wagner vs Tolkien", The New Yorker, December 22 2003
  4. Tom Shippey,The Road to Middle Earth, page 296
  5. CMU Libraries: Book: Tolkien's Cauldron
  6. http://muse.jhu.edu/login?uri=/journals/tolkien_studies/v005/5.wickham-crowley.html
  7. http://sites.google.com/site/vgbookreviews/TitlePage/rootsandbranches


References




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