Gandalf held up the ring that Frodo had just given him. “Do you see any markings on it?”
“No” answered Frodo. “It never shows a scratch or sign of wear.”
“Well then, look!” To Frodo’s astonishment and distress, the wizard threw it suddenly into the fire. Frodo gave a cry and groped for the tongs; but Gandalf held him back.
“Wait!” he said in a commanding voice, giving Frodo a quick look from under his bristling brows. And so the ring remained in the fire.
After a while Gandalf got up, closed the shutters outside the window, and drew the curtains. The room became dark and silent, and for a moment the wizard stood looking at the fire. Then he stooped and removed the ring to the hearth with the tongs, and at once picked it up. Then dropped it with a small gasp that was surprisingly joyous, considering that he had just burnt himself. He then muttered a spell in some language unknown to Frodo, and picked it up again. Looked very pleased with whatever he saw.
“What markings are there on my ring, Gandalf?” asked Frodo.
“Nothing” said Gandalf, handing it back to him. “And that is better news than you could possibly imagine. I have seldom been so pleased to find myself wrong. I had truly thought that I must bring you news of a dreadful peril to you and your homeland. An evil begun by elves very different from those you and Bilbo met. Much worse than the beautiful but heartless elves who ignored and then imprisoned Bilbo and his needy friends in Mirkwood.”
“There were some bad Eldar in the First Age, I remember Bilbo saying. They even killed other elves. I never liked to hear about that.”
“Understandable. And all of those are gone from Middle-Earth. But in the Second Age, there were High Elves who had repented of the original evil, but were still corruptible. Magic rings they made, with various powers, but among other things they would make the wearer invisible to most eyes. Not invisible to my wizardly eyes, of course. Nor to those elves who had once lived in Valinor. Nor to many others, some of very evil intent. A mortal who possesses one is in peril. He might draw evil to himself.”
“The ring might do that? But Uncle Bilbo…”
“He was fortunate. And both good and evil creatures lose their powers in Middle-Earth, and the evil far more quickly and completely. Bilbo’s ring hid him from spiders whose remote mother was a dread spirit in spider shape. It hid him from Smaug, though all dragons have ancestors who were spirits – their greed and anger make them no better than talking beasts. Still, despite their useful powers, those rings are not safe for mortals. Yet against that, the ring came to Bilbo by a seeming chance that served many excellent purposes. And as a wizard, I always try to guide rather than to command. It was not for me to tell him he should not keep the ring, one of very few still in the possession of a mortal.
“But I began to worry when I saw he did not age. If he had a Ring of Power, it would be bad for him in ways that would never occur to him. A mortal who keeps one of the Great Rings does not die, but he does not grow or obtain more life. He merely continues, until at last every minute is a weariness. And if he often uses the Ring to make himself invisible, he fades. He becomes in the end invisible permanently, and walks in the twilight under the eye of the dark power that rules the Rings.”
Frodo turned pale and tried to give the ring back to Gandalf, who refused it. Then he flung it away from him.
“A sensible reaction, though over-dramatic. But it is good that you still are stronger than this ring. It might have been otherwise, had it been what I feared.
“There is a very senior wizard called Saruman, who thinks he knows all about Rings of Power. But it seems that even his knowledge is incomplete. His lore, and also the more common lore already known to me, says that there were exactly twenty Rings of Power. They were made by the craft of the Noldor of Hollin, heirs of Feanor – an elf of brilliant skills and bad character, as you may have heard from Bilbo.”
“An elf who led his people to slay other elves, yes. But some of his sons repented?”
“Yes, but not wholly. Nor his grandson Celebrimbor, who once had his own small realm in Hollin. And as I said, in the Second Age they made magic rings of the sort I once thought Bilbo had found. Then they went further and made Rings of Power, which gave them both dominion over the natural world and the power to command and win trust from lesser minds that could be bent by magic. And in this they were aided, guided and in the end misled by Sauron. Who naturally did not appear to them as their old enemy and killer of many of their kin. To them he was Annatar, gift-giver, a benevolent being not unlike what wizards of my order actually are.
“There was some mistrust, naturally. Sixteen Rings of Power they made together, perhaps intended for dwarves and men. Certainly, seven later went to the seven dwarven kindreds. Nine to men of Sauron’s choosing – but that is to get ahead of the story. Sixteen had been made as a joint enterprise, but the elves did not wholly trust Annatar. So they made three more Rings of Power of even greater potency without involving him, though they used much that he had taught them. Meantime he was betraying them, making a twentieth ring that was meant to rule them all. Meant to bind all of the wearers to his power. Yet the elves were not deceived, and hid the Three from him. Hidden they are still, and the dwarves given a ring never served him, though the rings perhaps corrupted them. The nine for men did work as he intended, making them in the long run wraiths bound to his service.
“From Saruman, I learned that each Ring of Power has its own gem, whereas the Lesser Rings were mostly simple gold as yours is. But the One Ring made by Sauron had no gem. Perhaps he disliked gems – he is no dragon to crave bright trinkets. Or perhaps it was his secretiveness, letting any observer think he was working on just another Lesser Ring. For certain, his One Ring looked like just a simple gold ring.”
Frodo looked in terror in the direction he had flung his ring.
“No, it is not that ring, thankfully. The One Ring had markings on it: a little secret I learned in a library whose owners have forgotten much of the wisdom they once had. It seemed likely that it would show them again if the ring were put into fire. Your small fire, of course, would not melt even ordinary gold. It would make it hotter than your ring was – yet I think that the One Ring would not have been warmed at all. And I am certain – almost certain – that for unknown reasons, someone made yet another Ring of Power which was lost or forgotten. A twenty-first ring, not named in any ancient lore. Perhaps a first try at the One Ring by Sauron, not fit for his full purposes. Given to some superior servant who was later slain, and perhaps whoever did that was wise enough to cast it away.
“I need to be sure, of course. In matters of this weight, even the smallest chance must be allowed for. I need to test your ring further. May I wear it briefly?”
“Yes, yes” answered Frodo. “Take it for your own, if you can use it for your important work fighting evil.”
“I strongly doubt that I should take it for my own” answered the wizard, getting up and walking without hesitation to where Frodo’s ring was lying, up against a wall under a small cupboard. “I am not the lawful possessor – and nor was Gollum. If there were a King of Arnor still, it might properly belong to that king, though of course with proper rewards for the finder.”
“Kings own any lost treasure?”
“Perhaps. Laws vary. But it would certainly not be mine, even though you give it freely. Your own possession and Bilbo’s was not quite lawful, though mostly innocent. And it is no small matter. It is a Ring of Power like unto the original sixteen. Or perhaps worse, if Sauron made it as a step to the full evil of his One Ring. It might be perilous even to a wizard. It would let me command, but I can command well enough when I have a right to do so. My role is mostly to guide and advise, and often be ignored when I know best. Or sometimes fortunately ignored when I did not know best, so it is good that my power is limited.”
He put on the ring. He did not vanish, but for a moment he seemed to grow brighter, stronger, taller and less old: or perhaps ancient and ageless. Then with a slightly shudder he took the ring off again and tossed it to Frodo. Frodo caught it without thinking, then shuddered and put it down on the ground in front of his fire.
“Yes, it is a Ring of Power. Made very much with domination in mind. It has the odour of Sauron upon it. But a good and contented person would not be much tempted. A strong man warned of the dangers could probably avoid corruption. Yet its power is not trivial.”
“It could make people obey my orders? I don’t think that such a thing ever happened, for me or for Bilbo either.”
“A Ring of Power gives power in proportion to what the user already has. Or what they wish. Did you or Bilbo ever demand from anyone, anything that was not already natural to them?”
“I can’t think of anything. Except I never hesitated when Bilbo adopted me – but that was such a good chance anyway, and I already liked him.”
“Many hobbits liked him, but he was of course very likeable. Still, some of your neighbours are also very narrow-minded. Perhaps the power of the ring made a difference.”
“It did? Perhaps I should now command some of my neighbours to become better people. Or no, perhaps I should not. Assuredly, I should not. It is not for me to play with such power.”
“Indeed not. I myself am hesitant to use my own power that way. Yet I do believe that if you or Bilbo had stood up and demanded to be made King of the Shire, almost all of your fellow hobbits would have obeyed you.
“But why should I want to be king?”
“You do not wish to be king, perhaps realising that there are burdens on any good person who takes up such power and responsibility. And you live in a place that does not need a king. Very properly. But had the ring come to your relatives the Sackville-Bagginses…”
Frodo laughed. “They are already being foolish with all the money they have. Money they get by trading with strange people far in the south. They would certainly not be safe with a Ring of Power, even supposing I would give it to almost the last people I would favour.”
“I’m not sure it would be safe even with people you do favour. People like your good-natured cousin Merry. He will one day be Master of Buckland. He will undoubtedly face irritation when the other Brandybucks argue or ignore his advice, and when the folk of the Four Farthings are obstructive. He might think he knew better, and very often would be right. But not always, so it is good that he must wait and persuade and not always get his way. If he had the power that this Great Ring would give, he might start using it. Use it at first when he was mostly in the right, but it would grow on him. Or he might resist it – there is much good in him. But it is best he never be tempted.”
“It’s hard to believe a good fellow like that could become bad – but perhaps all bad people started out with some good intentions.”
“Oh yes. Sauron started with some excellent intentions. Wished to see good order. But became impatient when it took time to guide the foolish and ignorant, and began to command. Began to use fear when his commands were resisted. He fell, as many others have fallen before and since.
“It is also best that I should never be tempted. But there is one man whom it might be fit for. An heir of the Kings of Arnor, of which your Shire was but a small part, and which touches the Misty Mountain where the ring was found. He has a lawful heritage to restore. I have long watched him. I have seen him modest and polite when dealing with common folk who think him a striding suspicious fellow. Content to be taken lightly by men who would be terrified if they knew what he was guarding them from. You could give it to him, if you could find him.”
“I’m sure I’d need your help for that, Gandalf. I have sometimes thought of going away and following Bilbo. A holiday, and perhaps a series of adventures. But I’d hope they would end in peace, perhaps back here.”
“A fine ambition. And there would be nothing odd in my taking you to Rivendell. Let everyone know, as Bilbo did not, so no one tries declaring you dead. Entrust this ring to the elves of Rivendell– and Bilbo was there last time I looked. Go on as far as the Lonely Mountain if you like – the roads are safe now, and they have done some excellent work building waterways and fountains in the Dale. Also stone-paved roads of many colours! And the halls and cavernous streets under the earth with arches carved like trees!”
“Yes, yes. I must go and see that, while I am still young and strong.”
“Excellent” said Gandalf, pleased that he had led Frodo to do what seemed to be the right thing, without more compulsion than came from the mere existence of this 21st Ring of Power. “Do your duty, and then take a holiday. And then come back and enjoy the rest of your days here – if we can stop Sauron from taking everything. And I could not expect you to do much about that. Though if Bilbo had been meant to find Sauron’s One Ring, and you in turn to inherit it…”
The dream faded, and Gandalf awoke. He was in the Prancing Pony at Bree, on his way to see Frodo for the first time in years. Hailed as a long-lost friend by the inn-keeper, who however had many friends and no interest in other people’s private business. Did not realise who this occasional elderly visitor really was. Gandalf had known seven generations of Butterburs keeping this inn, but had not come too often and did not let them realise how ancient he really was.
Ancient without the need for Rings of Power. Gandalf was a spirit who had existed before the making of the world, though his memories of this and his life in Valinor were now dim. And his power limited, by the will of the Valar, so that he must work through his staff and by such ancient swords and other things that he could lawfully acquire. He touched the Ring of Fire, that he wore hidden on a chain around his neck. The Ring of Power that Cirdan had long ago entrusted to him. Another and possibly stronger Ring of Power would not tempt him much: Fire was now natural to him. But it would be otherwise if it were full of the corrupting power of Sauron, who had also been one of the spirits who existed before the world was made. That ring would find a way to his heart by pity; pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good. And it would soon turn to evil, an evil made worse by a pretence of good. No, if it were the One Ring, he must then somehow persuade Frodo to take the evil burden on a journey that must grow dark and dangerous.
Could he be spared that? Was the dream prophetic, or just his private wish? His fervent hope was that Frodo should not be burdened with the shadows of the past. Yet if what Bilbo had found really was the One Ring, there would be little choice in the matter.
Notes on the Rings of Power
I conceived this story, while doing an extended chapter-by-chapter study of the book. Questions occurred to me. Why did it take Gandalf so long to identify the One Ring? It is made clear that the Lesser Rings were once common, so it was reasonable to think this was another. But when he saw that Bilbo was not ageing, would it not have been obvious what ring this was?
I checked the scattered remarks, sorting out just when he might have known. Wrote an essay about it: Gandalf, Rings and Ringwraiths.
I applied the same logic to this story. Gandalf had his own Ring of Power, and would presumably have seen those of Elrond and Galadriel. Perhaps also some of the dwarven rings. He would have supposed, until Saruman told him otherwise, that all Rings of Power had a jewel. But even then, it was old lore and might be wrong. There might be a 21st Ring of Power.
From this, the story suggested itself. I could have done it as ‘Alternate Reality’, but having it as an unfulfilled dream seemed more fitting.
It would also not have been a better outcome, except for Frodo personally. Sauron was winning at the moment the One Ring was destroyed. Only the success of Frodo’s Quest gave a real chance of defeating him.