The Ring: What powers did it actually have???

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The Ring: What powers did it actually have???

Postby Incanus » Mon May 10, 2004 11:05 am

Seems like a silly question....but I cannot remember Tolkien ever clearly defining what the actual "powers" of the ring were.

Was it simply the embodiment of Sauron's life force.....or were there more specific powers?

Obviously, it grants the wearer invisibility........but is that all?

And how did one manifest the powers of the ring? What was the secret to unlocking the powers? Or was Sauron the only one who knew how?

Galadriel seemed to know.....

Can anyone elaborate on this?
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Postby -Rómestámo- » Mon May 10, 2004 12:06 pm

Just checking scirocco's Big List brings up many parallel discussions, including these selected (without review):

Sauron and the Rings of Power,
The Power of the 20 Rings,
Could Sauron have broken the ring and regained his native power?
from amongst many others.

What underpins all those discussions is an extract from Letter 131 (1951) in which JRRT gives his fullest account of the Rings of Power:
[...] We hear of a lingering kingdom, in the extreme North-west more or less in what was left in the old lands of The Silmarillion, under Gilgalad; and of other settlements, such as Imladris (Rivendell) near Elrond; and a great one at Eregion at the Western feet of the Misty Mountains, adjacent to the Mines of Moria, the major realm of the Dwarves in the Second Age. There arose a friendship between the usually hostile folk (of Elves and Dwarves) for the first and only time, and smithcraft reached its highest development. But many of the Elves listened to Sauron. He was still fair in that early time, and his motives and those of the Elves seemed to go partly together: the healing of the desolate lands. Sauron found their weak point in suggesting that, helping one another, they could make Western Middle-earth as beautiful as Valinor. It was really a veiled attack on the gods [the Valar], an incitement to try and make a separate independent paradise. Gilgalad repulsed all such overtures, as also did Elrond. But at Eregion great work began – and the Elves came their nearest to falling to 'magic' and machinery. With the aid of Sauron's lore they made Rings of Power ('power' is an ominous and sinister word in all these tales, except as applied to the gods).

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 ('the Necromancer': so he is called as he casts a fleeting shadow and presage on the pages of The Hobbit): such as rendering invisible the material body, and making things of the invisible world visible.

The Elves of Eregion made Three supremely beautiful and powerful rings, almost solely of their own imagination, and directed to the preservation of beauty: they did not confer invisibility. But secretly in the subterranean Fire, in his own Black Land, Sauron made One Ring, the Ruling Ring that contained the powers of all the others, and controlled them, so that its wearer could see the thoughts of all those that used the lesser rings, could govern all that they did, and in the end could utterly enslave them. He reckoned, however, without the wisdom and subtle perceptions of the Elves. The moment he assumed the One, they were aware of it, and of his secret purpose, and were afraid. They hid the Three Rings, so that not even Sauron ever discovered where they were and they remained unsullied. The others they tried to destroy.

In the resulting war between Sauron and the Elves Middle-earth, especially in the west, was further ruined. Eregion was captured and destroyed, and Sauron seized many Rings of Power. These he gave, for their ultimate corruption and enslavement, to those who would accept them (out of ambition or greed). Hence the 'ancient rhyme' that appears as the leit-motif of The Lord of 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
Sauron became thus almost supreme in Middle-earth. The Elves held out in secret places (not yet revealed). The last Elf-Kingdom of Gilgalad is maintained precariously on the extreme west-shores, where are the havens of the Ships. Elrond the Half-elven, son of Eârendil [sic], maintains a kind of enchanted sanctuary at Imladris (in English Rivendell ) on the extreme eastern margin of the western lands.[* Footnote : Elrond symbolises throughout the ancient wisdom, and his House represents Lore – the preservation in reverent memory of all tradition concerning the good, wise, and beautiful. It is not a scene of action but of reflection. Thus it is a place visited on the way to all deeds, or 'adventures'. It may prove to be on the direct road (as in The Hobbit); but it may be necessary to go from there in a totally unexpected course. So necessarily in The Lord of the Rings, having escaped to Elrond from the imminent pursuit of present evil, the hero departs in a wholly new direction: to go and face it at its source.] But Sauron dominates all the multiplying hordes of Men that have had no contact with the Elves and so indirectly with the true and Unfallen Valar and gods. He rules a growing empire from the great dark tower of Barad-dûr in Mordor, near to the Mountain of Fire, wielding the One Ring.

But to achieve this he had been obliged to let a great part of his own inherent power (a frequent and very significant motive in myth and fairy-story) pass into the One Ring. While he wore it, his power on earth was actually enhanced. 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, and in his desire to establish a control over the minds and wills of his servants. There was another weakness: if the One Ring was actually unmade, annihilated, then its power would be dissolved, Sauron's own being would be diminished to vanishing point, and he would be reduced to a shadow, a mere memory of malicious will. But that he never contemplated nor feared. The Ring was unbreakable by any smithcraft less than his own. It was indissoluble in any fire, save the undying subterranean fire where it was made – and that was unapproachable, in Mordor. Also so great was the Ring's power of lust, that anyone who used it became mastered by it; it was beyond the strength of any will (even his own) to injure it, cast it away, or neglect it. So he thought. It was in any case on his finger.


Letter 131, (1951).

So it is clear that the One Ring contained the powers of all the others, and controlled them, so that its wearer could see the thoughts of all those that used the lesser rings, could govern all that they did, and in the end could utterly enslave them. Like the other nineteen Great Rings, the Ruling Ring prevented decay, and enhanced the natural powers of the wearer. Like the Nine and the Seven it also bestowed invisibility on its wearer and made things of the invisible world visible. Unlike the others (or perhaps just to a much greater degree than the others), the One Ring had a power of arousing a lust for itself, that eventually mastered its bearer.

The Ruling Ring contained much of Sauron's inherent power which remained in rapport with him - not in 'communication' with Sauron (explaining how Sauron could lose track of where the Ring was, or who carried it and what they were doing), but in sympathy with him. Thus when Sauron was in hiding, that part of him within the Ring became relatively inactive, in hiding as well. Once Sauron awoke and starting 'calling' to the Ring, the One began to reawaken from its torpor, leaving Gollum and beginning to work towards returning to its Maker. However this slow reawakening of the Ring explains why Bilbo took so little harm from the Ring despite owning it for many years longer than Frodo.

To fully utilise the power of the Ruling Ring, one must claim it for one's own and attempt to master it, as Frodo did at Orodruin. Apart from Sauron, no previous bearer of the Ring had done this (not even Isildur, who succumbed to the lure of the Ring and possessed it, but did not attempt to use it except for its incidental power of invisibility).
[...] Frodo had become a considerable person, but of a special kind: in spiritual enlargement rather than in increase of physical or mental power; his will was much stronger than it had been, but so far it had been exercised in resisting not using the Ring and with the object of destroying it. He needed time, much time, before he could control the Ring or (which in such a case is the same) before it could control him; before his will and arrogance could grow to a stature in which he could dominate other major hostile wills. Even so for a long time his acts and commands would still have to seem 'good' to him, to be for the benefit of others beside himself.

Letter 246 (1963).

The Ring seduced its bearer with visions of bestowed power (cf Boromir at Parth Galen; or Samwise at Cirith Ungol). Elsewhere in Letter 246, JRRT suggests that no mortal was capable of completely controlling the Ring (not even Aragorn), and that even Elrond or Galadriel only might possibly have done so. Thus they could not wrest the power within the Ring from Sauron - their use of the One would be in using it to raise armies with totally obedient Generals and destroying Sauron by force, not vying directly against the Dark Lord.

Gandalf alone might be the only other entity in Middle-earth who Tolkien considered could have won complete control of the power within the Ring, an outcome which would have had the same effect on Sauron as the Ring's destruction - but even then Tolkien adds that if this occurred, still the Ring would have been the master in the end.
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Postby Incanus » Mon May 10, 2004 3:17 pm

As always, Romestamo, you are the pinnacle of knowledge and helpfulness.

Many thanks....
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Postby Ryan N » Sat Oct 02, 2010 4:53 pm

From letter 131:
they enhanced the natural powers of a possessor – thus approaching 'magic'

What does this mean?
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