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The Rings of Power in J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-earth legendarium are magic rings created by Sauron or by the Elves of Eregion under Sauron's tutelage. Sauron intended three of the rings to be worn by Elves, Seven by Dwarves, Nine by Men, and one, the One Ring, by Sauron himself in Mordor.
Sauron intended the rings to subvert these races of Middle-earth to his power, since the One Ring controlled the others. Sauron's plan was not completely successful, for the Elves hid their rings and did not use them while Sauron held the One, and the Dwarves did not respond to the One's control as Sauron expected. But the Men who wore the Nine were enslaved by Sauron, and became the Nazgûl ("ringwraiths").
Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is largely concerned with the attempt of Sauron to recover the One and the efforts of the West to forestall him by destroying it. The One is destroyed near the end of the War of the Ring when it falls into the Cracks of Doom in Orodruin, along with Gollum, who had bitten off Frodo’s finger on which he was wearing the Ring. Tolkien is not entirely clear about what happened to the other rings, though he implied that the powers of any that survived came to an end. After the War of the Ring, the three Elven Rings were taken by their bearers over the sea to the Undying Lands.
The making of the rings
Tolkien's essay "Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age" in The Silmarillion gives the background of the making of the rings. At the end of the First Age, Sauron evaded the call of the Valar to surrender, and fled to Middle-earth. Midway through the Second Age he came in disguise as Annatar ("Lord of Gifts") to the Elven-smiths of Eregion, who were led by Celebrimbor, and taught them the craft of forging magic rings. Tolkien writes that the Elves made many lesser rings as essays in the craft, but eventually with Sauron's assistance they forged the Seven and the Nine. The Three were made by Celebrimbor himself without Sauron's assistance; they remained unsullied by his touch.
Sauron returned to Mordor, and in his forge in Mount Doom he made the One Ring, imbuing it with a large portion of his power. Its purpose was to dominate and command the wearers of the other Rings. However, when Sauron put on the One Ring and recited the incantation inscribed on it, the Elves became aware of him, and understood who he was and his purpose. The words he spoke are in the language that Westron speakers call the Black Speech:
Ash nazg durbatulûk,
One Ring to rule them all,
When the Elves wearing the rings discerned Sauron's intention, they immediately removed them and hid them. Sauron invaded the West to recover the rings that the Elves had made; much of the West, including Eregion, was destroyed before he was driven back to Mordor. Sauron recovered the Nine and three of the Seven, but not the Three Elven Rings, which remained hidden.
The Verse of the Rings
The words inscribed on the One Ring come from the following verse, which describes 20 Rings of Power:
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 Lord of the Rings, Epigraph
Later in the Second Age, Sauron gave the Nine to powerful men, "kings, sorcerers, and warriors of old". All of them fell under the rings' dominance, and they became the Nazgûl (Ringwraiths), spirits of terror whom Sauron could command even without the One. Their lives were extended indefinitely by the rings, and they became Sauron's chief servants.
To mortal observers who were not themselves wearing a Ring, a Ring of Power seemed to render the wearer invisible. Although the Nazgûl could not be seen, they emanated an evil presence; their steeds were also visible. When they wished to adopt a noticeable form, they wore dark cloaks over their invisible bodies.
It is not clear whether the Nazgûl kept their rings. Tolkien says both "the Nine the Nazgûl keep" and that Sauron had gathered the Nine to himself, though in the latter case his meaning may be metaphorical. When the Nazgûl are destroyed, no mention is made of their rings.
Only two of the Nazgûl are identified in the texts: the Witch-king of Angmar was the leader of the nine, and his second in command was Khamûl, an Easterling. Khamûl is the only Nazgûl identified by name. Three of the Nine were Númenórean.
Also in the Second Age Sauron gave the Seven to the seven Dwarf-lords (though the Dwarves of Moria maintained a tradition that the ring given to Durin III came directly from the Elven-smiths). Gandalf mentions a rumour that the seven hoards of the Dwarves began each with a single golden ring, and although the Dwarves used their rings to increase their treasure, Tolkien does not explain how the rings accomplished this (save for a reference that the rings "need gold to breed gold"). The main power of the Seven on their wearers was to excite their sense of avarice. The wearers did not become invisible, did not get extended life-spans, nor succumb directly to Sauron's control – though he could still influence them to anger and greed.
Over the years, Sauron recovered three rings from the Dwarves, the last from Thráin II during his final captivity in Dol Guldur, some years before the beginning of The Hobbit. The remaining four, according to Gandalf, were consumed by dragons.
Until the Council of Elrond, the Dwarves did not know that Thráin had held the ring of Durin's line and had lost it to Sauron. They thought instead that it might have been lost when Thrór was killed by Azog in Moria. One of the motivations for Balin's doomed expedition to Moria was the possibility of recovering the ring. Sauron's messenger attempted to bribe the Dwarves of Erebor for news of Bilbo (the last known bearer of the One) with the promise of the return of the remaining three of the Seven and control over the Mines of Moria.
The Three Rings of the Elves were called Narya, the Ring of Fire (set with a ruby); Nenya, the Ring of Water or Ring of Adamant (made of mithril and set with a "white stone"), and Vilya, the Ring of Air, the "mightiest of the Three" (made of gold and set with a sapphire).
The Three remained hidden from Sauron and untouched by him. During the Third Age, after he lost the One, they were used for the preservation and enhancement of three remaining realms of the Eldar. Vilya was used by Elrond in Rivendell, Nenya by Galadriel in Lothlórien, and Narya by Círdan in Lindon. When the Istari, or wizards, arrived about T.A. 1100, Círdan gave Narya to Gandalf, who bore it until the end of the Third Age.
During the period of The Lord of the Rings, the Three were borne by Elrond, Galadriel, and Gandalf; but until the end of the book their rings are not seen. Only Frodo, the bearer of the One, sees Galadriel's ring, and only when she draws his attention to it. At the end of the book, these three take their rings, now visible and powerless, over the sea to the Undying Lands.
Although the Verse of the Rings describes Three Rings for the Elven-kings, the only Elven king who actually held a ring was Gil-galad. He held both Vilya and Narya, but entrusted them to Elrond and Círdan before perishing in Mordor.
Unlike the other Rings of Power, the One was unadorned. It bore only the inscription of the incantation Sauron spoke when he made it, and even that was invisible unless the ring was heated. Though the other rings could be destroyed in dragon-fire, the One could be unmade only in the unyielding fires of Mount Doom where it was forged.
When Sauron made the ring, he was obliged to transfer much of his power into it so that it could control the other rings, themselves objects of great potency. With the ring, Sauron remained very powerful, and he could use it to dominate the will of others; he very quickly corrupted Númenor into the worship of Melkor and open rebellion against the Valar.
The ring had a great effect on the human bearers who held it in the interim. It granted them indefinite life; though the effort of living became more difficult as time went on, for it did not grant new life. If they wore it, it made them invisible, enhanced their hearing, and made the shadowy world of the wraiths visible to them. It exerted a malicious influence; Gandalf mentions that though a bearer might begin with good intentions, the good intentions would not last. The Ring would give its bearer a fraction of Sauron's power, proportionate with the bearer's strength and force of will. Gollum, Bilbo, Sam, and Frodo only became invisible, although when Frodo bound Gollum to his service in The Two Towers, he indicated that he could use the Ring to control Gollum (because the Ring had mastered Gollum long ago). Gandalf and Galadriel, however, recognized that they could use the full power of the Ring, becoming even more powerful than Sauron himself, but they resisted, knowing that in the end, the Ring would corrupt them. Gandalf explained to Frodo that, with great concentration and training, even he could tap into the Ring's power, but probably at the cost of his sanity.
The One Ring possessed something of a will of its own. Its only accepted master was Sauron himself, and it would seek to leave any other bearer when it would cause the greatest harm, or when it might return to Sauron. Bilbo warned Frodo of this, and Frodo kept it on a chain so that it would not slip off unnoticed. In the end, Gollum succumbs to the malevolent influence of the ring, defies Frodo, and takes the ring for himself. While dancing with joy over the recovery of the ring, Gollum falls into the Cracks of Doom in Orodruin, where the ring is destroyed. With the destruction of the Ring, Gandalf explains that Sauron is weakened to the point that he will never be able to materialize again.
Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring begins with a similar prologue, though longer and more detailed. The three Elven rings are shown being cast using a cuttlebone mold, an ancient primitive casting technique. Additionally, Tolkien illustrators John Howe and Alan Lee, employed as conceptual designers for the films, have cameos as two of the nine human Ring-bearers who become Nazgûl.
- Silmarillion, Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age
- Fellowship, The Shadow of the Past
- The Silmarillion, "Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age", p. 289.
- Unfinished Tales, "The Hunt for the Ring", p. 338.
- Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel, "The Council of Elrond", The Fellowship of the Ring.
- Unfinished Tales, "The Hunt for the Ring", p. 338.
- The Silmarillion, "Akallabêth, p. 267.
- The Lord of the Rings, Appendix A, "III. Durin's Folk".
- Unfinished Tales, "The History of Galadriel and Celeborn", p. 238.
- The Return of the King, "The Grey Havens", passim.
- Return of the King, The Last Debate
- Tolkien, J. R. R. (1954), The Fellowship of the Ring, The Lord of the Rings, Boston: Houghton Mifflin (published 1987), ISBN 0-395-08254-4
- Tolkien, J. R. R. (1955), The Return of the King, The Lord of the Rings, Boston: Houghton Mifflin (published 1987), ISBN 0-395-08256-0
- Tolkien, J. R. R. (1977), Christopher Tolkien, ed., The Silmarillion, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, ISBN 0-395-25730-1