Can the Ring be given up freely?


New Member
I am making way through the Council of Elrond section of Exploring the Lord of the Rings, and there is something that's been bothering me for a while. It has to do with the giving up of the Rings of Power. To quote Gandalf in The Shadow of the Past:

"A Ring of Power looks after itself, Frodo. It may slip off treacherously, but its keeper never abandons it. At most he plays with the idea of handing it on to someone else's care - and that only at an early stage, when it first begins to grip. But as far as I know Bilbo alone in history has ever gone beyond playing, and really done it. He needed all my help, too..."

First, Gandalf starts this by saying A Ring of Power, not The Ring of Power or The One Ring. Now considering he was freely gifted a Ring of Power by Cirdan, he can hardly mean any Ring of Power, despite his use of the indefinite article. (Unless he coerced Cirdan - but I'll consider that very unlikely. And if he did, what about Gil-Galad giving a Ring to Elrond? Or Celebrimbor to Galadriel and Gil-Galad to begin with? It seems that its keeper will often abandon it.)

We must, therefore, assume that Gandalf is referring to The One, and also that he is not basing this on any first-hand experience with Rings of Power. In this case, it seems like an very broad statement. Let's look at its brief history of owners to this point and how they gave it up (or the history of owners "as far as [Gandalf] know", anyways):
1) Sauron: taken from corpse (as its creater, he never intended to lose it)
2) Isildur: it abandoned him to his death (but he did toy with the idea of giving it up to the Elves)
3) Deagol: Murdered within minutes of possessing it (but still refused to give it up in that time)
4) Smeagol: it left him (he would not have given it up freely)
5) Bilbo: gave it up freely (albeit with Gandalf's help)
Gandalf has brief records from Isildur to base this observation on, as well as conversations with Gollum and Frodo.

Doesn't it seem to be a stretch to assert that no one can give it up? "Bilbo alone in history" is 20% of its owners, or 25% of owners who didn't explicitly pour part of themselves into it. That's not too bad. Gandalf's assessment that the idea of giving it up at an early stage may be played with by the owner is no doubt based on Isildur, but Isildur never got the chance to see whether he could have or not. I presume he couldn't have given it up (and we did presume that in Class), but we have zero other comparables to say this for certain. It is a remarkably broad claim to make for the vanishingly small sample size.

There would be no records even available to the Wise that could corroborate these claims (presumably Sauron didn't leave his notes laying around), so I personally think it is worth revisiting our assumptions about how hard the ring is to give up. Is it conceivable that Aragorn could have taken the ring to Mount Doom and dropped it in if he never used it? Perhaps. Is it possible he could have worn and then given it up (possibly with great strain or personal sacrifice)? I don't think it's as out of the question as we tend to assume. I personally wouldn't give it to him to test out the theory as I think the less powerful would be a much better bet to carry the ring, but I think it should be accepted as a possibility.

I do, of course, believe what Gandalf says, and it is clearly meant to be unquestionably true in the book. However, in the spirit of this course, I think it is a fair question to ask. If anyone has insight into this, or agrees or disagrees with the analysis, I'd be curious to hear your thoughts!


Well-Known Member
Good questions Calaparmo.

I see this as Gandalf causing inferences (deliberately) which go beyond what he actually states. A clear plural, referring to all Rings of Power would have been to say, "Rings of Power look after themselves." "A Ring of Power looks after itself," is ambiguous. The 'A' could be interpreted as, "Every Ring of Power looks after itself," or as "One of the Rings of Power looks after itself."

Gandalf's audience, and the Readers, might well infer the first construction. Gandalf, of course knows that that is not true, as well as the examples of the handover of Elven Rings, which you mention, there are a number of explicit or implied voluntary handovers of Dwarvish Rings.

So, questions:

How does Gandalf know that this is how the One Ring works?

Why would he tell this to Frodo?

Why would Gandalf be so ambiguous about "A Ring of Power".

It seems (from this conversation in Bag End) that Gandalf is already thinking that throwing the Ring into Mt. Doom is a likely best course of action, and that Frodo is potentially the one to do this. Is it a good idea to plant in Frodo's mind the idea that getting rid of the Ring might be difficult or impossible? It might be that Gandalf thinks that warning Frodo (and suggesting that Bilbo managed it) could strengthen Frodo's will and increase the chances of success? On the contrary, though, it might prey on Frodo's mind, making him more susceptible. Also, it might cast doubts on the chances of the entire mission to Mt. Doom? However, more important to Gandalf when he said this (I think) than doubts it might cast on the whole destroy the Ring mission, is the lead up to what he is about to say to Frodo, "There was more than one power at work, Frodo. The Ring was trying to get back to its master.... I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker." Gandalf is more trying to tell Frodo about the role of Providence, and instill Estel, so, he may overlook that what he is saying tends to diminish Amdir in the likely outcome of a quest to Mt. Doom?

As to how Gandalf arrives at the conclusion that the Ring induces strong possessiveness in its bearers, I suggest that the example of Isildur was the least pertinent. Isildur had reasons (other than Ring induced possessiveness) to want to keep the Ring. Bilbo's possessiveness alarmed Gandalf because it was so out of character. However, Gandalf had recently de-briefed the captured Gollum. It was Gollum's obvious obsession with 'His Precious', both when he had it, and long after, which was probably the main evidence Gandalf had for ascribing this possessiveness to the Ring.

Why Gandalf uses the construction, "A Ring of Power" so ambiguously, I don't know. There seems no good reason. I suspect the hand of JRRT in translation, rather than Gandalf. JRRT likes a bit of ambiguity, and initial vagueness, which can cause questions and build interest in the Reader as more details are revealed later on?


New Member
Thanks for the comments, Flammifer. I think that is a good reading, and it is important to remember that Frodo is the audience, and that Gandalf foresees him playing a part in the destruction of the Ring. It does seem important to emphasize that Bilbo as the only one to give it up, as it conveys the message that Hobbits may succeed even where the Mighty have failed. Emphasizing this would certainly be useful to Frodo, and fits an important theme of the books.

I also agree that Gollum must be the primary source for the understanding the possessiveness of the ring, although I don't think this is enough evidence to think that everyone would act in this way. Gollum certainly doesn't have the moral fortitude of some others who potentially could have ended up as ringbearers, which is why I wonder if someone like Aragorn could have given it up.

Jim Deutch

Well-Known Member
"A Ring of Power looks after itself, Frodo. It may slip off treacherously, but its keeper never abandons it.
I would think Gandalf might have learned some Ringlore somewhere, perhaps long ago; even now, he may largely trust anything Saruman told him before his treason. Maybe this information comes from another source than personal observation.

I like Flammifer's theory that it is the storyteller's choice to be vague about exactly what Rings we're talking about, to keep some mystery in it, but I wonder if it couldn't be Frodo, writing this all down later, who made that narrative choice.


New Member
Hi Jim, thanks for the comments! I like the idea that the vagueness comes from the storyteller, and I especially like that it could come from Frodo, who might even be projecting his experience onto all the Rings to some extent.

As for Gandalf's Ringlore, my question remains: what other sources exist? Gandalf mentions that even Saruman's lore must come from some source, which is why he goes to Gondor to find Isildur's account of the ring. I don't think Saruman has any "secret" information source about the Ring (Gandalf found his primary source). It is possible, of course, that there is more information in Isildur's writings, or more texts altogether, that contain extra information not mentioned at the Council. This seems unlikely given Gandalf's failure to mention it, but is is possible; regardless, and other texts would have been of limited value (they all would have been from a short period of time before Isildur left for Arnor). Regardless, I believe it is safe to assume that Gandalf has as much factual information about the One Ring as Saruman does at this point.

So, the known sources that Gandalf have are Isildur's text(s), observation of/conversations with Gollum, and observation of Bilbo and Frodo. Elrond's account of Isildur taking the Ring could also be included as a source of information.

What are other possible sources? I think we can rule out anything coming from Sauron, the only other possible primary source (unless, perhaps, his bird spies like to freely sing about how the Ring changed him?). The only other possibility I can conceive is that when Celebrimbor became aware of Sauron's deception, he somehow had a good guess of how the One Ring operated, and this was passed on to other second-age Elves and the knowledge survived somehow. This is very speculative, however, and I don't think it works very well on closer inspection.


Well-Known Member
The other obvious sources of Ring-lore, besides Saruman, are Elrond and Galadriel. Both have Rings of Power of their own, (and have had them longer than Gandalf has). Galadriel presumably had her Ring when Sauron tried to use the One to 'find, bring, and bind', all the other Rings, so, though the Elvish Rings were hidden by then, Galadriel may have felt or discerned somewhat about the powers of the One through that attempt?). Both were acquainted with Celebrimbor and the Elves of Hollin, so, could have had information from them (but they are also a likely source of Ring-lore for Saruman, so it is unlikely that Gandalf would have learned anything more than Saruman learned from them). Cirdan also possessed an Elvish Ring when Sauron tried to dominate them, so, could be a source of information for Gandalf. Gil-galad might have passed on his impressions to Elrond, Galadriel, and/or Cirdan.

Another possible source of some Ring-lore for Gandalf might have been from Thrain, in the dungeons of Dol Guldur. Thrain was the bearer of one of the Dwarf Rings, which was wrested from him by Sauron, after his capture, and during his torment in Dol Guldur. It is possible that Sauron gloated as he wrested the Dwarf Ring from Thrain, and revealed somewhat about his own powers and the workings of Rings of Power? Although Gandalf did not manage to free Thrain, he communicated with him enough for Thrain to give him the key and map to the back door to Erebus. It is possible that Gandalf learned something about Rings of Power from Thrain?