The People of Middle-earth: One Ring to Rule Them All

In this biweekly series, we’re exploring the evolution of both major and minor figures in Tolkien’s legendarium, tracing the transformations of these characters through drafts and early manuscripts through to the finished work. This week’s installment looks at the textual history and political significance of the One Ring, Sauron’s greatest treasure.

In September 1963, Tolkien drafted yet another of a number of letters responding to questions about Frodo’s “failure” at the Cracks of Doom. It’s easy to imagine that he was rather exasperated. Few, it seemed, had really understood the impossibility of Frodo’s situation in those last, crucial moments: “the pressure of the Ring would reach its maximum,” Tolkien explained; it was “impossible, I should have said, for any one to resist, certainly after long possession, months of increasing torment, and when starved and exhausted” (Letters 326). Even had someone of unmatched power, like Gandalf, claimed the Ring, there would have been no real victory, for “the Ring and all its works would have endured. It would have been the master in the end” (332).

It would have been the master.

From humble beginnings as a mere trinket bartered in a game of riddles (see the original Hobbit), the Ring grew in power and influence until it did indeed include all of Middle-earth in its simple band of gold. “One Ring to rule them all” wasn’t just meant to sound intimidating—it was hard truth. Even Sauron couldn’t escape the confines of its powers. It was his greatest weakness.

But how did the Ring become the thing around which the entirety of the Third Age revolved (Letters 157)? How was it that the simple ring, freely offered by Gollum to Bilbo in 1937 (merely because he wanted to be rid of it!), came to dominate the counsels of the Wise and direct the course of history? To become, as it were, at least semi-sentient? The easy answer—Tolkien’s easy answer—is that if one was going to write a sequel to The Hobbit, the Ring was the obvious and most fruitful link. In the course of the telling, “the Ring would at once acquire a capital letter; and the Dark Lord would immediately appear” (Letters 216). But again, that’s the easy answer, and as usual the actual course of events was far less organic than Tolkien represented it in his own reflections.

In the first drafts of the “Hobbit sequel,” as it was long called, the One Ring is almost incidental. It is simply “the ring,” or Bilbo’s “magic ring.” It allows the hobbit to escape from unwanted guests and play pranks on friends, but has little use—or effect—apart from that. Originally, Tolkien planned to have Bilbo leave the Shire because the dragon gold he had acquired was affecting him negatively: he was to go seek Elrond’s help in Rivendell, and Elrond would recommend that he visit a magical island in which his money-lust would be healed (The Return of the Shadow, hereafter RS, 41). At this stage, Bilbo treats the ring as a memento of his travels. He is sentimental, and doesn’t want to give it up. The ring isn’t precious, but rather a functional, physical reminder of the time a Baggins had an adventure. And, of course, it allows him to escape unwanted guests. But it’s significant that at this point the ring isn’t dangerous if used for good or humorous purposes. As long as there’s no evil intent lurking behind the bearer’s possession of it, it’s harmless (RS 42). Again, it’s a trinket, and not a secret or hidden one either. The ring is openly discussed at this stage, and Bilbo isn’t necessarily concerned with keeping its existence to himself.

The first intimations of danger start to creep into the story when Tolkien suggests that the ring is connected to the Necromancer of The Hobbit and that even the bearer can’t force the ring to do something it doesn’t want to do (RS 42). This is a major shift and the moment at which Christopher Tolkien declares that “the Ring’s nature is present in embryo” (RS 42). The tone of the drafts darkens gradually. “The ring must eventually go back to Maker or draw you towards it” Tolkien writes in a note. “Rather a dirty trick handing it on?” (RS 43). The innocence of the ring is slipping away.

As Tolkien pushes forward, hints about the ring’s nefarious future crop up. The Black Riders were an early feature of the text, as was the hobbits’ chance meeting with Gildor and the elves; in a conversation with Bingo (Frodo’s predecessor), Gildor cryptically warns that “the use of the ring helps [the Riders] more than you” (RS 64). Bingo’s response is amusing: “More and more mysterious! […] I can’t imagine what information would be more frightening than your hints; but I suppose you know best.” It’s not at all unlikely that Tolkien didn’t quite fathom the full implications of Gildor’s hints, either. After all, though the ring was quickly accruing its own dark context, it was still largely innocuous in that its ill-effects were yet unimagined.

All the same, Tolkien was beginning to realize that the future of the Hobbit sequel depended on what exactly this ring was, to whom it belonged, and what it could do. Christopher notes that his father’s conception of the ring’s power was evolving as he wrote, and revisions reveal a deliberate attempt to foreground just how much Bingo doesn’t know about the artifact he has inherited from his then-father Bilbo (RS 70-71).

About this time there emerged a draft of a conversation between Bingo and a party only identified as “Elf” (likely Gildor), in which very suddenly the Ring takes on an identity of its own—and a capital letter. In it we learn that the Ring can “overcome” persons and can “get the better of” them (RS 74). It is in this fragment that the title “the Lord of the Ring” first appears, alongside the idea that servants of this lord “have passed through the Ring” (RS 74). And on another related sheet, Tolkien finally lays out his conception of the ringwraiths:

Yes, if the Ring overcomes you, you yourself become permanently invisible—and it is a horrible cold feeling. Everything becomes very faint like grey ghost pictures against the black background in which you live; but you can smell more clearly than you can hear or see. You have no power however like a Ring of making other things invisible: you are a ringwraith. You can wear clothes. But you are under the command of the Lord of the Rings. (RS 75)

This is a remarkably complete and sophisticated conception of the One Ring to be present so early, but it still lacks in certain points. For example, the manuscript goes on to explain that “in the very ancient days the Ring-lord made many of the Rings: and sent them out through the world to snare people” (75). Thus, though the Ring has finally been given its sinister purpose and lexical importance, it is still but one among many of such things; a weapon of an enemy, no doubt, but not one that holds Middle-earth in its scope. The danger is personal, isolated. Later, the Ring gains marginal importance in that it becomes the only one still in existence that the Dark Lord has yet to recover, but the Ring’s world-wide significance has not yet developed.

The enormity of the Ring’s purpose continued to mature alongside the drafts. Some central ideas appeared suddenly, as if without prior consideration, and ultimately remained into the published text. The most significant of these was the idea that the Ring must be destroyed in what was then called the “Cracks of Earth.” (According to Christopher, the “Mount Doom” chapter was brought to completion more quickly than any other because its bones had been present since the beginning [Sauron Defeated, hereafter SD, 37].) Upon pausing at Bree to project the narrative’s progress, Tolkien imagined that Bingo and his companions would undertake a journey of the same movements and proportions as those in The Hobbit: a brief stop at Rivendell for counsel; a fearsome mountain as a destination; and finally, a return journey culminating in a sort of “happily ever after” ending (RS 126). The format was simple and had already proved successful. What could go wrong? The story would be finished within the year.

The answer is, of course, that everything that could go wrong did, and Tolkien found himself with a monster on his hands. Things finally fell into place when he halted in his forward movement and returned to the beginning to revise. The draft that portends The Lord of the Rings’ “Shadow of the Past” was the deciding factor. There the fateful words at last appear: “‘This,’ said Gandalf, ‘is the Master-ring: the One Ring to Rule them all! This is the One Ring that he lost many ages ago—to the great weakening of his power; and that he still so greatly desires. But he must not get it!’” (RS 258).

This statement was apparently the key. At this point the entire narrative undergoes a dramatic shift. Tolkien begins cutting out the more light-hearted, jovial uses of and references to the Ring. (The last one to go involved Bingo sneaking into Farmer Maggot’s house and frightening the hobbit and his wife half to death by invisibly drinking beer and making loud proclamations about a “thievish Baggins” being in the house [RS 293].) Minor details are still in progress, but the major outline of the Ring’s significance has at last been achieved. In fact, Tolkien’s conceptualization of the Ring is so far matured that Gandalf’s reaction to being offered it appears in almost perfect form in the third draft (RS 322).

From this point on, the role of the Ring is largely decided and only changes in magnitude. Slowly but surely, the other pieces fall into place. The existence and location of the Ring become a great secret. Gandalf’s knowledge of the Ring is lessened in the beginning to explain his failure to warn Bilbo of its danger (The Treason of Isengard, hereafter TI, 23). Suspicions are raised. Although it’s difficult to pinpoint the precise moment because of lost pages and undated drafts, the term “Isildur’s Bane” is introduced and the history of the Ring and its journey from Mordor to the Shire developed (TI 129).

Gradually too, the story of Saruman and his betrayal begins to emerge—and Gandalf’s suspicions are immediately evident. In one draft, the two wizards sit talking, with Gandalf characteristically smoking. Gandalf, pointedly watching his superior, blows a large smoke ring followed by many small rings. “Then he put up his hand, as if to grasp them, and they vanished. With that he got up and left Saruman without another word; but Saruman stood for some time silent, and his face was dark with doubt and displeasure” (Unfinished Tales, hereafter UT, 367). Gandalf’s suspicion is kept closely under wraps in the later drafts, of course; no clever dramas with smoke rings hint to Saruman of his growing disquiet.

At this point, Tolkien starts to contemplate the influence of the Ring and how it has affected the surrounding world—which means that the Elven Rings become an object of great interest. Indeed, the Rings of Power occupy a substantial portion of Tolkien’s thought during this period. Though at one point it was clear that the Dark Lord made the rings to ensnare the elves (RS 75), that idea is cast aside in favor of another: that the Elven Rings were made separately, but depend on the One Ring for their potency. If the One is returned to Sauron’s hand, the works of the Three literally become evil (TI 155). On the other hand, if the One is destroyed, the Three will be saved (TI 286). This latter idea was ultimately rejected, but it is nonetheless significant that Tolkien imagined a future for the Elven Rings that did not depend upon the existence of the One. Varying degrees of devotion to the work of the Three are exhibited across the drafts; in one unfinished tale, Galadriel advises Celebrimbor to destroy them lest they come under Sauron’s control. He refuses, and they are only saved from corruption in the nick of time (UT 267).

Tolkien also played with the idea that there were other rings floating about. In one strange draft, Sam picks up what is presumably a dwarf-ring of invisibility in the Chamber of Mazarbul, and later, when Frodo lies deathlike in Shelob’s Lair, he exchanges it with the One and the enemy is forced to deal with a “Ruling Ring” that is “no good” (TI 209, 215).

Gradually, though, the narrative begins to solidify as Tolkien explores just what it means for this Ring, Bilbo’s trinket, to be the One Ring, the Ruling Ring—the very receptacle of Sauron’s power. As part of this process we’re given fascinating suggestions, some of which are cast aside, others of which become central to the telling of the tale: The Ring is a sort of universal translator, allowing its wearer to understand Orc-speech (TI 332; The War of the Ring, hereafter WR, 190). The elven-cloaks work better than the Ring for going about Mordor unnoticed (TI 343). The orcs are well aware of the Ring and that their master is looking for the bearer—and they recognize Frodo the moment he is in their clutches (TI 342). The pull of the Ring was what influenced Frodo to set out for Mordor alone, leaving his companions behind on the banks of Andúin (TI 374). The Ring gives increased powers of perception, especially hearing and smelling (WR 214). The weight (both literally and metaphorically) of the Ring increases the closer the travelers get to Mordor (WR 105, 177).

Though some of those ideas were ultimately rejected or only implied in the published narrative, they do illustrate quite clearly that Tolkien was interested in delineating what events the Ring affected, over what and whom it had power, and what it could conceivably make a person do. And, alongside and perhaps partially as a result of these explorations, the Ring began to develop as a force to be reckoned with in its own right—as a being with motivations, desires, and the ability to influence its bearer… as a more or less sentient being, a character in its own right.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Tolkien doesn’t give us any instances of the Ring thinking, at least not in anyway that we can see. But he does force us to face the fact that the Ring does what the Ring wants to do: with increasing frequency, the Ring becomes the subject for acting verbs. The Ring reveals, seeks, wants, desires. And, as in the Ring poem, it rules, finds, brings, and binds. As it comes into its own it dominates the plot, and it is suddenly very clear why Tolkien could claim, in 1963, that the Ring could have been the master of all if a powerful being had taken it to wield it.

The fact was that the Ring had become far more than an artifact or even a semi-sentient being with its own corrupt motivations. It was, Tolkien wrote in 1958, “a mythical way of representing the truth that potency (or perhaps rather potentiality) if it is to be exercised, and produce results, has to be externalized and so as it were passes, to a greater or less degree, out of one’s direct control. A man who wishes to exert ‘power’ must have subjects, who are not himself. But he depends upon them” (Letters 279). This statement—that power is in fact the potential for action and that it must be external to the one who exercises it—is in fact a remarkably sophisticated political theory, one that later, renowned socio-political philosophers like Michel Foucault, Hannah Arendt, and Giorgio Agamben would write about in great depth.

External potential is what give the Ring its potency as a tool of Sauron. Political theorists will tell you that power is less open to overthrow when it is dispersed, invisible, rather than centrally located and only that. This is simultaneously the brilliance and the foolishness of Sauron’s plan. The Ring has, over the centuries, created for the Dark Lord an intricate, largely invisible network of power, like a web that stretches across Middle-earth. Because of the Ring he has vassals, spies, slaves, and rivals, all drawn to the same locus, the same vortex of potency; all seeking the same goal. The Ring is constantly drawing together the various threads of this vast network, binding them in the darkness of fevered desire. The Ring is like a conduit, or, if you wish, like Crowley’s M25: always channeling evil and corruption in the world around it into nodes of sudden strength, until even the good is drawn in and tainted.

And that fact is what makes the Ring a terrifying weapon. Its potential is the threat—not what it’s doing at any given moment, especially because we as readers never see the full extent of the its power. We know what it’s capable of, but we don’t see its full capabilities on display (and in this it mimics Sauron himself). The “what if?” of the Ring is what sets all the forces of Middle-earth in motion and the great fear of everyone – from Sauron to Gandalf to Frodo – is that someone (else) will take into their head to claim the potential of the Ring. The only hope for the West is that that potential will remain open. Once claimed, all hope is lost because the potentiality, as Tolkien puts it, is pushed over into action. Power becomes ossified and is no longer, “to a greater or less degree, out of one’s direct control.” The system then shuts down, unsupportable.

The wild card in all this theory is that the Ring isn’t quite an inanimate object, like your typical ring, or even a highway. The Ring, too, has a will and is always working to push its own potentiality into actuality and therefore to become the master in which all power coalesces. For this purpose it was made. The Ring wants to be worn and claimed, to be returned to its source: to rule, to find, to bring, and to bind. It’s why everyone wants to claim it and no one wants to give it up—why, in the end, no one can give it up. This political situation is ultimately what has been developing over the course of the many drafts. The Ring grows in potency and reach, from its humble origins as a trinket that is freely possessed and bartered away to its culmination as a fraught symbol of the potentiality of political authority.

“The One Ring,” by VincentXyooj

Megan N. Fontenot is a dedicated Tolkien scholar and fan who enjoys stretching the boundaries of Middle-earth scholarship. Catch her on Twitter @MeganNFontenot1 and feel free to request a favorite character in the comments!

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