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The One Ring, also known as the Ruling Ring or Ring of Power, is an artifact from J. R. R. Tolkien's fictional Middle-earth universe. The Andvarinaut in the Volsunga saga is considered to have been the main inspiration.
It was created by the Dark Lord Sauron during the Second Age in order to enlarge his own might by combining it with the power of the Elven Smiths, and thus to give him control over the other Rings of Power, which had been made by Celebrimbor and his people with Sauron's influence. To do this, he concentrated within it part of his own fëa ("soul" or "spirit") - thus he was more powerful than ever before when he wore the Ring, but became much weaker when he lost it. Though it appeared to be made of simple gold, the Ring was virtually impervious to damage, and could only be destroyed by throwing it into the pit of the volcano in which it had originally been forged. Unlike the lesser Rings, it bore no gem, but its identity could be determined by a simple (though little-known) test: when heated in a fire, it displayed in fiery letters in the language of Mordor a section of poetry from part of its lore - the Ring-inscription.
When a person wore the ring, he would be partly "shifted" out of the physical realm into the spiritual realm. There, if he managed to consciously subdue the Ring's will with his own, he could wield all the powers that Sauron had before he lost the ring; especially he could control and enslave the will of others. A side effect (but usually the first effect noticed) of the Ring was that it made the wearer invisible to physical beings like living Men but highly visible to spiritual beings like wraiths, dimmed the wearer's sight, and sharpened his hearing. This "shadow world" was the world the Wraiths were forced to live in always, but it was also a world in which the Calaquendi (Elves of Light) held great power: therefore Glorfindel was able to stay the Witch-king at the Battle of Fornost and later again at the ford of Bruinen at Rivendell.
In Peter Jackson's movie trilogy, the wearer of the Ring is portrayed as moving to a shadowy realm where everything is distorted, but this cannot have been Tolkien's intention, or Bilbo Baggins or Frodo Baggins would surely have reported it. For cinematic purposes it was necessary to use a dramatic visual effect for the shadow world, but in the books Bilbo especially is clearly able to function perfectly normally while wearing the Ring.
Part of the nature of the Ring is that it slowly but inevitably corrupted its wearer, regardless of any intentions to the contrary. Whether this was specifically designed into the Ring's magic or is 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.) For this reason the Wise, including Gandalf, Elrond and Galadriel, refuse to wield it in their own defense, but instead determine that it must be destroyed.
After its original forging, the Ring was cut from Sauron's hand by Isildur, who lost it in the River Gladden just before he was killed (some time just after 3434 of the Second Age[S.A.]). The Ring remained hidden in the river bed for almost two millennia, until it was discovered on a fishing trip by a Stoor Hobbit named Déagol. He was murdered by his cousin Sméagol, who stole the Ring, and was changed by the Ring's influence over many ages into the creature known as Gollum. As is told in The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins found the Ring while he was lost in the caverns of the Misty Mountains, near Gollum's lair and found the invisibility it bestowed useful in his quest. (When The Hobbit was written Tolkien had not yet conceived of the Ring's sinister back-story.)
Some decades later, following the counsel of his friend the Wizard Gandalf, Bilbo gave the Ring to his nephew and adopted heir Frodo. This first willing letting-go of the Ring in its history sets in motion the train of events that leads eventually to its unmaking, an example of the interplay between seeming chance and destiny that is a constant implicit theme in The Lord of the Rings.
By this time Sauron had begun to regain his power, and the Dark Tower in Mordor had been rebuilt. 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. This was the only way to destroy it, as it was otherwise impossible to harm; when heated in fire, it did not even grow warm but remained cool to the touch.
Physically the Ring resembled a geometrically perfect circle of pure gold, this perfection and purity being part of its allure. It seems to have been able to expand and contract, in order to fit its wearer's finger or slip from it treacherously. In Peter Jackson's film The Fellowship of the Ring, the Ring can be seen contracting to fit Isildur's finger. When heated in fire, the Ring would bear the following inscription in Elvish (Fëanorian) letters in the language of Mordor:
- Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul,
- ash nazg thrakatulûk, agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.
These are the first two lines from the end of a verse about the Rings of Power (see entry):
- One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
- One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.
The story of the Quest to destroy the Ring is told in Tolkien's novel The Lord of the Rings, as is most of the Ring's history.
Symbolism of the One Ring
Although Tolkien has always strongly held that his works should not be seen as a metaphor for anything, and especially not for the political goings-on at his time (for instance WW II or the Cold War; note the much of The Lord of the Rings was written prior to and during World War II and well before the Cold War), many people have felt an irresistible urge to see the One Ring as a symbol or metaphor for various things. Among them are atomic energy and the atomic bomb, which would both be anachronistic, as the Ring was invented in the late 1930s, and the atom bomb did not become public knowledge until 1945. Other possible interpretations are that the ring represents the urge for power, which in Tolkien's view is always corrupting.
A recent interpretation by Danish author Peter Kjaerulff is, that the Ring symbolizes The Cursed Ring, a device described by both Plato in his Republic (the Ring of Gyges), and in Richard Wagner's Ring operas, besides Tolkien. Although Tolkien denied any connection, it is certainly possible that the One Ring was inspired by the central artifact of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), without being meant to "symbolize" it. See also andvarinaut.
A different way to look at this question is to ask what gives the idea of the Ring its power as a story element, without considering whether it was intended as a symbol for any one thing. The notion of a power too great for humans to safely wield is an evocative one, and already in the 1930s there were plenty of technologies available to make people think of that idea. The lure and effect of the Ring and its physical and spiritual after effects on Bilbo and Frodo are obsessions that can be compared with drug addiction, for which the Ring serves as a powerful metaphor.
The One Ring in film
See also: Middle-earth
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