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Of the Nature of Sauron and The Rings of Power
by Kurt Briesemeister

Of the Nature of Sauron and The Rings of Power

What is the nature of the Nine, the Seven and the Three? What do they do for their bearers?

The Nine, Sauron said, would give the bearers power over other men and extend their lives. The attraction of the Seven for their bearers is not spelled out in Tolkien’s work, but it is said that the Dwarves used them to acquire wealth. Of the Three, very little is said of Vilya. Of Nenya, we know that Galadriel used its power for healing and to repair the ravages of war on her lands. And of Narya we have Cirdan’s quote:

"Take this ring, Master," he said, "for your labours will be heavy; but it will support you in the weariness you have taken upon yourself. For this is the Ring of Fire, and with it you may rekindle hearts in a world that grows chill."

We do know that the Three were made for the purposes of understanding, making and healing. Each of the nineteen Rings of Power imparts both vitality and influence over others on its bearer, apart from any other attributes they might have. In the case of the Nine, the bearers became lords among men and achieved lengthened life spans (though not of the kind that was originally offered, to be sure). The influence imparted by the Seven was used by their bearers to amass wealth. And though we have a stated purpose for the making of the Three, it is evident from Cirdan’s words that they share the attributes of the others (the influence the Three grant is good in nature, however, inspiring hope in others instead of twisting others’ thoughts to fit the bearer’s purpose, as the Nine may do).

What is Sauron’s nature?

Sauron was the chief lieutenant of Morgoth throughout the First Age. Of Morgoth the Silmarillion states

" corrupt or destroy whatsoever arose new and fair was ever the chief desire of Morgoth."

This is Sauron’s chief motivation as well. With the passing of Morgoth into the void, however, it is almost as if the evil of the world became less overt and more subversive: More corrupting, less immediately identifiable as evil, and more seductive. From the time of Beren and Luthien on, Sauron rarely contested with others by his own strength, preferring instead to work through deceit and treachery.

Though he is mighty enough personally to stand against the likes of Gil-Galad and Elendil together, Sauron’s preference is for domination and subversion, deceit and corruption. Numerous examples of his extraordinary persuasiveness exist. With the coming of Ar-Pharazon, Sauron "yielded" convincingly, and then went to Numenor, where his poison spread throughout the land and caused its destruction. In Eregion he took fair shape and seduced the elves of that land with his fair words. By promises of glory, and preying on their fear of death, he persuaded nine lords of men to accept his "gift" of the Nine Rings of Power. Through the palantir he clouded the mind of Saruman and made him betray the White Council. He drove Denethor to suicidal despair by the visions of the palantir of Minas Tirith.

Sauron prefers lies and whispers to personal involvement. He works through minions and intermediaries. He delights in twisting others to do his bidding. When these methods fail, he uses force, but even then it is his minions that get their hands dirty.

What is the nature of the One Ring?

The One is an instrument of domination, control of the will of others. The other Rings of Power wield influence over others in one form or another, but the One goes infinitely further. In its making, Sauron poured forth a large measure of his power. The Ring is essentially an extension of him, and as such it shares in his nature. The One augments the charisma and persuasiveness of its bearer a thousandfold, if they are so inclined. It works to corrupt bearers who are not so inclined, as well. (As pure and idyllic as most hobbits are, untouched by the cares of the world, a strong-willed hobbit is an exceptional choice to carry the One without feeling its effects.)

Through its link to the other Rings of Power, it was designed specifically to influence the bearers of those rings, with varying degrees of success. The bearers of the Three were untouched by the One’s influence, for they did not attempt to use the Three while Sauron held the One. After the War of the Last Alliance, when the One was lost, the bearers of the Three were able to use them at will. The dwarven bearers of the Seven proved too strong-willed to corrupt entirely. The best that Sauron could do was to awaken avarice in them, a lust for gold that no doubt served his ends in its own way. But the Nine proved most fruitful. Chosen by Sauron for their potential for evil, positions of power and susceptibility to his influence, the bearers of the Nine succumbed entirely and became his most dreadful servants.

The One shows signs of intelligence at times, as it strives to return to its master. As a part of Sauron himself, it is linked to him and behaves in ways that increase its chances of finding its way back to him. It changes shape to fit any wearer, for its best chance of returning to Sauron is to be carried back by someone under its influence. As has been noted, it can enlarge and slip off the finger at opportune times to be discovered, or urge its bearer to don it in situations where those sensitive to its existence are near. The most obvious sign of its power is that it turns its bearer invisible. When Bilbo found the Ring initially, this seemed its only attribute. At that time Sauron was not looking for the Ring, believing it destroyed. When Sauron began to actively look for the One again, the One began to actively look for him.

Invisibility is the first power a bearer of the One discovers, but what most discussions of the Ring overlook is that this is a side effect of the Ring’s power on mortals (and possibly some elves). The Ring confers invisibility on its bearer by shifting him into a spirit-world, or as Gandalf refers to it, the "wraith-world." The spirit-world overlaps the physical world, and creatures in the spirit-world cannot be seen in the physical but do have a physical presence here. The Nazgul offer the best example. Through use of the Nine Rings they have slowly faded from the physical world and into the spirit-world, appearing invisible, save the gleam of their eyes and their black robes. When Frodo put on the Ring on Amon Hen,

"At first he could see little. He seemed to be in a world of mist in which there were only shadows: the Ring was upon him."

Frodo while wearing the Ring has the same difficulty seeing in the physical world as the Nazgul do. Things in the spirit-world, however, stand out very clearly, as on Weathertop:

"Immediately, though everything else remained as before, dim and dark, the shapes became terribly clear. He was able to see beneath their black wrappings. Under their mantles were long grey robes; upon their grey hairs were helms of silver; in their haggard hands were swords of steel."

In Rivendell, Gandalf says "those who have dwelt in the Blessed Realm live at once in both worlds, and against both the Seen and the Unseen they have great power." So the Ring did not turn Tom Bombadil invisible, because if he is a Maia (as is often supposed) he exists in both worlds. It’s possible the Ring would not turn Gandalf or Elrond invisible (and no, the ring does not turn Sauron invisible). It also brings up the question of whether they can see the wraith-world. A probable answer is that Elf-Lords can (and of course Sauron can) but the Istari cannot. In The Hobbit Bilbo surprises both Gandalf and the dwarves when he suddenly reappears in their midst after finding the Ring. This is because the Istari are "clad in bodies as of men, real and not feigned" and thus Gandalf is subject to man"s blindness. Having no contact with the spirit-world, a man (or hobbit) who dons the Ring finds himself shifted into the spirit-world and is unable to be seen by those in the physical world. This invisibility is a side effect, since the Ring was not specifically designed with the purpose of turning its bearer invisible. It was designed to be borne by Sauron, who would not be subject to this effect (he is already in both worlds).

As in ancient legends of sorcerers who put their hearts in jars to render their bodies impervious to death, the One’s existence prevents Sauron’s total destruction. As Elrond tells Gandalf in The Silmarillion,

"In the hour that Isildur took the Ring and would not surrender it, this doom was wrought, that Sauron should return."

As long as the One exists, a part of him will survive and grow again to power. But this is also Sauron’s weakness. If it is destroyed, it is the end of him as well. (The fact that he thought the Ring destroyed by the elves at the end of the Second Age and yet found himself still alive is somewhat puzzling.)

Were Sauron to recover the One, he would be restored to a peak of power he possessed in the ages before he transferred a portion of himself into it. And in the Third Age, there is no longer anyone of great enough stature to contest him. Even the Three could no longer be put to use since they are tainted by the One’s control. It is not strength of arms that the One augments, as many suppose (most notably Boromir). Sauron’s military might is already more than a match for the Free Peoples. The One augments strength of will. Sauron’s history of coercion is long and distinguished. With the Ring in his possession, Sauron’s influence over the minds and hearts of the people of Middle Earth would be impossible to resist. His shadow would spread across the land until all its peoples proclaimed him master. Even if a small number had the strength to withstand his control, they would be but a candle in the darkest of nights, burning feebly and soon snuffed out.

So the danger of the Ring is that while it exists, Sauron exists, and while Sauron exists, Middle Earth lives in peril of him, and of the possibility that at some point the Ring might find its way back to him.

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