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Tolkien Essays

Thoughtful exploration and exposition of Tolkien's Legendarium

The Rings of Power

The Lord of the Rings is a story about a Ring, the one who bore it, the one who wants it, and how it shaped the world. Given the importance of the eponymous jewelry, many casual readers (and certainly some less-casual ones) may be left wanting to know more.

That’s where I come in.

Who created the Rings of Power?

The answer to this question begins, as do so many answers to questions in the Legendarium, with a story.

After the defeat of Melkor in the War of Wrath, a group of Elves settled in a place called Eregion. These Elves were craftsmen, friends of the Dwarves in Moria (the most reliable source of mithril). The most skilled craftsmen of this group were called the Gwaith-i-Mirdain, which is Sindarin for “the people of the jewel-smiths.” They were Noldor Elves, descendants of Finwë, known as the strongest and most powerful group of Elves. Such luminaries as Galadriel, Elrond (sorta), and Gil-galad were Noldorin. Due to a bit of a kerfuffle called the Kinslaying, the Noldor got themselves kicked out of Valinor and had to go to Middle-earth en masse. After the War of Wrath most of them were permitted to come back to the West, should they wish, but many chose to settle in Middle-earth instead.

Despite rejecting their ancestral homeland, the Elven soul still contains a yearning for Valinor (this is another story in itself). The Elves in Eregion had a thought: what if we could have the best of both worlds? What we we could build ourselves a mini-Valinor right here in Middle-earth?

Meanwhile, after the defeat of his erstwhile master, Sauron put on a fancy new body and rebranded himself as Annatar, Lord of Gifts. He started hanging out with the Noldor, and he pretty quickly figured out that this yearning for the West would be his in.

But wherefore should Middle-earth remain for ever desolate and dark, whereas the Elves could make it as fair as Eressëa, nay even as Valinor? And since you have not returned thither, as you might, I perceive that you love this Middle-earth, as do I. Is it not then our task to labor together for its enrichment, and for the raising of all the Elven-kindreds that wander here untaught to the height of that power and knowledge which those have who are beyond the Sea?

JRR Tolkien, The Silmarillion, “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age”

Some of the Noldor mistrusted him, but the Gwaith-i-Mirdain were all about this idea.

It was in Eregion that the counsels of Sauron were most gladly received, for in that land the Noldor desired ever to increase the skill and subtlety of their works. Moreover they were not at peace in their hearts, since they had refused to return into the West, and they desired both to stay in Middle-earth, which indeed they loved, and yet to enjoy the bliss of those that had departed. Therefore they hearkened to Sauron, and they learned of him many things, for his knowledge was great. In those days the smiths of Ost-in-Edhil surpassed all that they had contrived before; and they took thought, and they made Rings of Power. But Sauron guided their labors, and he was aware of all that they did; for his desire was to set a bond upon the Elves and to bring them under his vigilance.

JRR Tolkien, The Silmarillion, “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age”

As the above quote says, Sauron had a bit of an ulterior motive. So he’s palling around with the Noldor in Eregion, and he tells them about this idea he has: what if we made some super powerful rings that would let us make Middle-earth into a kind of New Valinor?

Now, the Elven smiths were already into the making of rings. The idea itself wasn’t new. But Sauron taught them some new tricks for making extremely powerful rings, which are now referred to, suitably, as Rings of Power.

“In Eregion long ago many Elven-rings were made, magic rings as you call them, and they were… of various kinds: some more potent and some less. The lesser rings were only essays in the craft before it was full-grown, and to the Elven-smiths they were but trifles – yet still to my mind dangerous for mortals. But the Great Rings, the Rings of Power, they were perilous.”

Gandalf, JRR Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, “The Shadow of the Past”

The thing is though, the tricks that Sauron taught them had some unintended consequences. Tolkien doesn’t go into detail, but it seems like the magic woven into the creation of these Rings was beyond the understanding of the Elven smiths using it. So while the Rings certainly accomplished their purpose, they also had other, hidden purposes we will get to anon. In addition, the Rings that Sauron helped to forge had even more properties that he imparted on them without the knowledge of his supposed allies.

Which brings me to the answer of the question: There are 20 Rings of Power written about in the Legendarium. Of these rings, 16 were a collab between the Gwaith-i-Mirdain and Sauron. All 16 of these are tainted by his touch. Three of them were forged by the greatest of the Elven smiths, Celebrimbor. Sauron never touched them, though they still contained the “backdoor” that all the Rings of Power were subject to (which I’ll come back to in a bit). And then, finally, Sauron himself forged the One Ring in Mordor, separate from the others.

What do the Rings actually do?

The chief power (of all the rings alike) was the prevention or slowing of decay (i.e. ‘change’ viewed as a regrettable thing), the preservation of what is desired or loved, or its semblance - this is more or less an Elvish motive. But also they enhanced the natural powers of a possessor - thus approaching ‘magic’, a motive easily corruptible into evil, a lust for domination. And finally they had other powers, more directly derived from Sauron… such as rendering invisible the material body, and making things of the invisible world visible.

JRR Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 131

The Rings have a bit of a mismash of powers.

As Tolkien directly states above, the goal of the Elvish smiths was “the preservation of what is desired or loved, or its semblance.”

Why this power? Because the Elves wanted to re-create Valinor on Middle-earth. And what is another name for Valinor? The Undying Lands. Unlike Middle-earth, which is subject to decay, Valinor is sustained by the power of the Valar and does not decay. The Rings replicate this power, preventing decay of that which the bearer desires.

Elves are connected with Arda, the created world, in a way that Men are not. Elves are not in fact truly immortal, but their lifespan is tied to creation itself. Their bodies are less subject to disease and decay. They are so connected to the Music of Creation that they can weave it and alter it to serve their own ends, to a fashion; that which Men call magic. For the Elves, wearing a Ring of Power sustains and preserves their land, making a Valinor-like area within Middle-earth.

Men, on the other hand, are a bit…out of place on Arda. They lack the deep connection the Elves have. The Rings do not do much to preserve their land, because the land is not a part of them as it’s a part of the Elves. Rather, the Rings preserve their own bodies, their mortal lifespans. This isn’t really the intended purpose – the Elven smiths likely didn’t give much thought to the idea of Men using their Rings – but it explains how the Nazgûl came to be.

Those Rings that Sauron touched also had additional properties. They caused the wearer to fade from the physical world, remaining as but a shadow. At the same time, they also made the wearer supremely visible in the unseen spiritual world. This property isn’t really related to any of the other powers, and is present mostly because Tolkien wrote a ring of invisibility into The Hobbit and needed it to retain those powers. If only the One Ring turned the wearer invisible, though, Gandalf would look a right fool for not figuring out right away what Bilbo’s ring was. So all the Rings that Sauron touched have this property. But the wearers of the Three are notoriously not invisible, so only the seventeen Rings that Sauron’s hand shaped have this property.

The nineteen non-Ruling Rings had another fun feature as well:

And much of the strength and will of Sauron passed into that One Ring; for the power of the Elven-rings was very great, and that which should govern them must be a thing of surpassing potency; and Sauron forged it in the Mountain of Fire in the Land of Shadow. And while he wore the One Ring he could perceive all the things that were done by means of the lesser rings, and he could see and govern the very thoughts of those that wore them.

JRR Tolkien, The Silmarillion, “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age”

This “governance” was not an immediate power; putting on one of the Rings of Power while Sauron wears the One didn’t make the wearer an instant puppet. Rather, it was a matter of influence over time. When Sauron sprung his trap, the Elves who were wearing the other nineteen Rings had time enough to discern his treachery and remove their Rings.

Of course, the One Ring was the key to it all. The One Ring was the Ruling Ring, and it contained much of Sauron’s power.

Side question: who wrote the poem about the Rings?

The Lord of the Rings opens with (indeed, in my copy it comes even before the table of contents!) a delightfully eerie poem about the 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 two penultimate lines are even etched onto the One Ring itself (in Black Speech, the language of Mordor), only visible when heated in fire.

But this raises the question: who wrote these verses?

When the Rings of Power were forged, there weren’t three for the Elves and seven for the Dwarves and nine for the Men. Rather, there were nineteen for the Elves. The Three were certainly set apart, being forged secretly by Celebrimbor, but there likely wasn’t any plan to distribute the Rings to other races. The Dwarves and Men were a plan of Sauron’s after his Plan A (control the Elves) failed. Not many others knew of this plan.

(There are some passages in Unfinished Tales which suggest that the Elves intended themselves to give some Rings to the Dwarves, and indeed differentiates between the Seven and the Nine very early on. I suspect this is a case of the story evolving over the years.)

And then of course there’s the description of the One Ring. It seems that Sauron himself wrote the couplet about the One Ring that’s inscribed on its surface, but someone has to have transcribed and translated it. Who?

We first encounter the poem in-universe when Gandalf recites it to Frodo in Chapter 2 of Book 1 of The Fellowship of the Ring, where the only commentary he offers is to call it “a verse long known in Elven-lore.”

Unfortunately, the answer is somewhat shrouded in mystery. However, here’s what we know about whomever wrote it:

To my knowledge the One never left Sauron until S.A. 3441, when it was claimed by Isildur after Sauron’s defeat. We know that Isildur wrote about it, including a description of the Ring and the words inscribed on it. However, in the Council of Elrond, Gandalf says:

“When I read these words, my quest was ended. For the traced writing was indeed as Isildur guessed, in the tongue of Mordor and the servants of the Tower. And what was said therein was already known. For in the day that Sauron first put on the One, Celebrimbor, maker of the Three, was aware of him, and from afar he heard him speak these words, and so his evil purposes were revealed.”

JRR Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, “The Council of Elrond”

At least one person knew of the verse before Isildur copied it down: Celebrimbor. However, the Ring Verse is likely not written by Celebrimbor himself, as the unfortunate smith died in SA 1697 at the hands of Sauron. Perhaps Sauron began distributing the Rings prior to being driven out of Eriador in SA 1701, but he almost certainly hadn’t fully distributed them (the first Nazgûl don’t appear until SA 2251, some of whom originate far from Eriador). Some theorize that Celebrimbor actually distributed at least one of the Seven himself before his death, though The Silmarillion is fairly firm on the issue. As mentioned above, Unfinished Tales tells a slightly different story of this event, already differentiating between the Three, Seven, and Nine soon after their forging.

In the current version of events, it seems likely to me that the Ring poem was written by one of the Gwaith-i-Mirdain who survived the destruction of Eregion and worked to figure out what happened to the other Rings. Perhaps the unknown author was told the One Ring couplet by Celebrimbor, or perhaps he or she heard it personally as one of the other Ring-wearers.

Why couldn’t the good guys use the Ring to fight Sauron?

In the Council of Elrond, many possible strategies are discussed. Boromir suggests using the Ring rather than destroying it. It makes sense…if this Ring is so powerful, couldn’t it be used against Sauron?

“Why do you speak ever of hiding and destroying? Why should we not think that the Great Ring has come into our hands to serve us in the very hour of need? Wielding it the Free Lords of the Free may surely defeat the Enemy. That is what he most fears, I deem….Let the Ring be your weapon, if it has such power as you say. Take it and go forth to victory!”

“Alas, no,” said Elrond. “We cannot use the Ruling Ring. That we now know too well. It belongs to Sauron and was made by him alone, and is altogether evil. Its strength, Boromir, is too great for anyone to wield at will, save only those who have already a great power of their own. But for them it holds an even deadlier peril. The very desire of it corrupts the heart. Consider Saruman. If any of the Wise should with this Ring overthrow the Lord of Mordor, using his own arts, he would then set himself on Sauron’s throne, and yet another Dark Lord would appear.”

JRR Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, “The Council of Elrond”

The movie, incidentally, bungles this by having Aragorn say, “The Ring will answer to Sauron alone. It will serve no other master.” Which as a simplifying device is fair enough, but then it doesn’t really make sense that Gandalf and Galadriel have to reject it and Sauron is so desperate for it.

In fact, Sauron doesn’t even need the Ring to be in his possession necessarily, he just needs someone else to not have claimed it:

But even if he did not wear it, that power existed and was in ‘rapport’ with himself: he was not ‘diminished’. Unless some other seized it and became possessed of it. If that happened, the new possessor could (if sufficiently strong and heroic by nature) challenge Sauron, become master of all that he had learned or done since the making of the One Ring, and so overthrow him and usurp his place. This was the essential weakness he had introduced into his situation in his effort (largely unsuccessful) to enslave the Elves.

JRR Tolkien, The Letters of JRR Tolkien, Letter 131

So not only could another actually claim the Ring, Sauron would be undone by this action. But Tolkien also elaborates on Elrond’s (very wise) response to Boromir:

One can imagine the scene in which Gandalf, say, was placed in such a position. It would be a delicate balance. On one side the true allegiance of the Ring to Sauron; on the other superior strength because Sauron was not actually in possession, and perhaps also because he was weakened by long corruption and expenditure of will in dominating inferiors. If Gandalf proved the victor, the result would have been for Sauron the same as the destruction of the Ring; for him it would have been destroyed, taken from him for ever. But the Ring and all its works would have endured. It would have been the master in the end.

JRR Tolkien, The Letters of JRR Tolkien, Letter 246

Elrond and Gandalf recognized what Saruman did not: that there is no mastering the Ring. In the end, the Ring masters you.

(This is probably what the movie is trying to convey through Aragorn’s speech. It’s unfortunate that most people come away believing that nobody else can claim the Ring but Sauron and are left confused why everyone else seems to be tempted by it.)

But…that’s not the end of the story. Later in Letter 246, Tolkien writes, “It was part of the essential deceit of the Ring to fill minds with imaginations of supreme power.”

The Ring is tricky, and one of the ways it tricks its wearers is with an illusion of power. Sauron hoped that someone such as Aragorn or Boromir would receive the Ring and then believe that he was powerful enough to defeat the forces of Mordor. Sauron would then crush him and take the Ring from his corpse.

Is the One Ring alive? Can it think?

Above, I just wrote “The Ring is tricky.” But “tricky” is a trait usually ascribed to thinking beings, or at least living ones (though I have owned a car I would refer to as “tricky” before.)

Gandalf says,

“A Ring of Power looks after itself, Frodo. It may slip off treacherously, but its keeper never abandons it….It was not Gollum, Frodo, but the Ring itself that decided things. The Ring left him.”

JRR Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, “The Shadow of the Past”

So wait, the Ring decided things? The Ring left Gollum? The Ring looks after itself?

Is the Ring…alive?

(In the movies, Gandalf adds, “The Ring is trying to get back to its master. It wants to be found.” The movies definitely seem to come down on the “yes” side of this question. But this line is not present in the book.)

I believe Gandalf himself gives us the answer to this question later in the same chapter:

So now, when its master was awake once more and sending out his dark thought from Mirkwood, it abandoned Gollum. Only to be picked up by the most unlikely person imaginable: Bilbo from the Shire! …this is the One, and he is exerting all his power to find it or draw it to himself.

JRR Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, “The Shadow of the Past”

As we learned above, Sauron poured the majority of his power into the Ring. The Ring is a part of him, and to separate the Ring from Sauron is to destroy Sauron. So any action of the Ring’s, any seeming “behavior” of this object, is simply a reaction to Sauron’s call.

As I write this, a fairly recent function of Tesla electric cars is what’s called “Smart Summon.” If you’re under 200 feet away from your car (generally, in a parking lot or something) and within line of sight, you can use your smartphone to cause the car to drive toward you. It’s still pretty rudimentary, as the car drives quite slowly (sensibly so), and the Internet is full of people complaining about their Tesla running into things after being summoned. The car is not sapient, or sentient, in any way. It’s simply responding to the call of its owner. I sort of view the Ring in the same way.

This theory would tie everything up neatly with a bow, except for the fact that the Ring “betrayed” Isildur, slipping off his finger in his moment of need. This happened after the defeat of Sauron at Orodruin. Sure, Sauron’s spirit still existed and was connected to the Ring, so this event doesn’t completely kill the “Smart Summon” idea, but it certainly confounds it.

Ultimately, though, the Ring has no “intelligence” of its own. It is not a thinking being. Its power is Sauron’s power, and if at some point it seems to be acting in a certain way, it is doing so as a result of the power Sauron put into it. Tolkien was very definite on the fact that random Maiar (or Valar, for that matter) can’t create creatures which think rather than act on instinct as beasts do. Sauron through his power might have imparted a sort of instinct into the Ring, but no true intelligence.

Why did destroying the Ring destroy Sauron?

The destruction of the Ring did not destroy Sauron completely. But it effectively destroyed him, leaving him powerless to do anything.

It did destroy Barad-dûr, Sauron’s tower, though. That wasn’t just in the movies. Many may have been left wondering why destroying the Ring caused the tower to collapse.

The tower’s foundations were made through the power of the Ring. In a sense, the Ring was a load-bearing element of the tower: “The Dark Tower was broken, but its foundations were not removed; for they were made with the power of the Ring, and while it remains they will endure.” However, I’ve heard from a number of civil engineers who point out that Barad-dûr as a structure would almost certainly not be able to stand up under its own weight without magical assistance. I love the thought that Sauron had to use a certain amount of his own power at all times just to keep his tower from falling over. When Sauron lost his power with the destruction of the Ring, the tower toppled.

As for Sauron himself, he put so much of his own power into the Ring that without it, he was nothing. Gandalf states as much:

“If it is destroyed, then he will fall; and his fall will be so low that none can foresee his arising ever again. For he will lose the best part of the strength that was native to him in his beginning, and all that was made or begun with that power will crumble, and he will be maimed for ever, becoming a mere spirit of malice that gnaws itself in the shadows, but cannot again grow or take shape. And so a great evil of this world will be removed.”

Gandalf, JRR Tolkien, The Return of the King, “The Last Debate”

This wasn’t the first time that Sauron was faced with destruction. One of the great love stories in the Legendarium is that of Beren and Lúthien. Beren was a Man, and Lúthien was an Elf (really, half-Elf and half-Maia, but that’s a discussion for another time), yet they loved each other. Beren was captured by Sauron pre-Ring. Lúthien and an amazingly Good Boy named Huan kicked Sauron’s teeth in and threatened him with bodily destruction (the Princess rescued Mario). This is described in what is easily one of the top ten most metal passages in the Legendarium:

But no wizardry nor spell, neither fang nor venom, nor devil’s art nor beast-strength, could overthrow Huan of Valinor; and he took his foe by throat and pinned him down. Then Sauron shifted shape, from wolf to serpent, and from monster to his own accustomed form; but he could not elude the grip of Huan without forsaking his body utterly. Ere his foul spirit left its dark house, Lúthien came to him, and said that he should be stripped of his raiment of flesh, and his ghost be sent quaking back to Morgoth; and she said: ‘There everlastingly thy naked self shall endure the torment of his scorn, pierced by his eyes, unless thou yield to me the mastery of thy tower.’

JRR Tolkien, The Silmarillion, “Of Beren and Lúthien”

I have to believe that Sauron thought back on this humiliating defeat as he poured his power and essence into the Ring, thinking “never again.” And sure enough, when his physical form was destroyed in the sinking of Numenor, he was able to create himself a new body in just a year or so:

But Sauron was not of mortal flesh, and though he was robbed now of that shape in which he had wrought so great an evil, so that he could never again appear fair to the eyes of Men, yet his spirit arose out of the deep and passed as a shadow and a black wind over the sea, and came back to Middle-earth and to Mordor that was his home. There he took up again his great Ring in Barad-dûr, and dwelt there, dark and silent, until he wrought himself a new guise, an image of malice and hatred made visible; and the Eye of Sauron the Terrible few could endure.

JRR Tolkien, The Silmarillion, “Akallabêth”

Without the Ring in his possession, he was still able to return after his defeat by the Last Alliance at the hands of Isildur and Gil-galad, but it took him nearly three thousand years.

After the battle with Gilgalad and Elendil, Sauron took a long while to re-build, longer than he had done after the Downfall of Numenor (I suppose because each building-up used up some of the inherent energy of the spirit, which might be called the ‘will’ or the effective link between the indestructible mind and being and the realization of its imagination). The impossibility of re-building after the destruction of the Ring, is sufficiently clear ‘mythologically’ in the present book.

JRR Tolkien, The Letters of JRR Tolkien, Letter 200

After the Ring was destroyed, Lúthien’s threat finally became real and Sauron was reduced to a spirit of malice, never to trouble the physical world again.

What happened to the other Rings after the One was destroyed?

“But what then would happen, if the Ruling Ring were destroyed as you counsel?” asked Glóin.

“We know not for certain,” answered Elrond sadly. “Some hope that the Three Rings, which Sauron has never touched, would then become free, and their rulers might heal the hurts of the world that he has wrought. But maybe when the One has gone, the Three will fail, and many fair things will fade and be forgotten. That is my belief.”

JRR Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, “The Council of Elrond”

Unfortunately, Elrond was correct. The Elves helped destroy the One Ring, suspecting as they did so that they were dooming themselves to leave Middle-earth. Without the Three to preserve the land and build a slice of Valinor in Middle-earth, they succumbed to the summons of the Valar and journeyed West to the Undying Lands.

The Gwaith-i-Mirdain created all the rings, even the Three, using the tainted knowledge Sauron taught them. Even though he never got his hands on the Three, they were still inextricably intertwined with the fate of the One. Its destruction brought about the end of them all.

Though unsullied, because they were not made by Sauron nor touched by him, they were nonetheless partly products of his instruction, and ultimately under the control of the One. Thus, as you will see, when the One goes, the last defenders of High-elven lore and beauty are shorn of power to hold back time, and depart.

JRR Tolkien, The Letters of JRR Tolkien, Letter 144

As for the Seven (the ones that hadn’t been destroyed by dragons) and Nine, they were (presumably) in Barad-dûr when it fell. If someone went and dug them out of the rubble, they would find some really nice rings with no magical properties.

The end of an Age.

Annotated Bibliography

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Humphrey Carpenter, editor.

The Silmarillion. J.R.R Tolkien and Christopher Tolkien.
The principal section of The Silmarillion concerning this matter is “Of The Rings of Power and the Third Age,” which is where the core material regarding Celebrimbor, the Gwaith-i-Mirdain, and Sauron’s trickery originates. The first part of this essay quotes liberally from this section.

The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien.
The first volume, The Fellowship of the Ring, contains two major expository chapters: “The Shadow of the Past” in Book 1, and “The Council of Elrond” in Book 2 (every single time I have to think about whether it’s “council” or “counsel,” and if I haven’t gotten it wrong somewhere it’s only due to my increased vigilance having messed it up previously so often). Both of these chapters cover the Ring quite extensively, and I find it gratifying to be able to quote from a work published during Tolkien’s own lifetime.

Final Note

I hope you find this essay helpful or interesting. I certainly enjoyed writing it, but my enjoyment is increased if my readers enjoy it too. Feel free to contact me with any additional questions on the matter. There is quite a bit of information available on the Rings of Power, so I did not have to delve too deeply into opinion or interpretation. That said, I’m always open to feedback or disagreement.

Thanks for reading!