What are the powers of the Ring?

Rachel Port

Active Member
What Boromir knows about the Ring is what we have spent the past year of this class on. That's all he knows, other than the ancient history that Sauron had made such a Ring and it had disappeared, which apparently is part of the lore he learned in Minas Tirith. No more, no less. No specific power other than invisibility has been mentioned, except perhaps the corruption of Saruman, and I doubt he attributes that to the Ring. I don't think what Boromir knows is what matters, but what he believes of what he has been told in the Council.

Jim Deutch

Well-Known Member
I think the tale of Beren and Luthien makes it pretty clear that 'magic' in Arda, is made up of will and words and song
Do the songs of the Hobbits have magical power? Maybe, in a small way. They certainly seem to put enough Will into drinking and bathing songs!

But I get the impression you are trying for more of a "scientific" explanation than this, one that gives answers to such questions as "what powers does the Ring confer on its wearer?" "Will, words and song" don't answer much, though I think it is correct. Later in the story we will learn more about how important the native power of the bearer is, and how training and practice are required in order to access more of the Ring's powers.
What I am trying to explore is, what are the powers of the Ring?
Think of this analogy: what is electricity made up of? Following your methods and concluding from the evidence we see around us, electricity is made up of light switches and occasionally new lightbulbs. Perhaps we've looked behind a light switch and can add copper wires to the list. Very limited explanatory power there. It won't lead you to the ability of electricity to power movement, computation, temperature change, etc.
I don't think we ever learn enough about the Ring, or about Rings in general, to answer your question.


Well-Known Member
Hi Jim,

I am not really trying for a 'scientific' explanation of what the Ring does (or, especially, how it does it). I am trying to figure out what the participants at the Council can reasonably deduce that the Ring does, from the evidence they have heard (especially Boromir - "What does the Ring do? What sort of weapon might it be?").

I am well aware that the Ring might later appear to have other powers, but I don't think people at the Council could be aware of them yet.

When I said that 'magic' in the Ring was made of Will, Words, and Song, that was in response to someone who said that in some movie (I forget which) we get an 'explanation' of what 'magic' is made of, but we don't get that in TLOTR. I was just suggesting that, in my opinion, in the legendarium, we do get an explanation of what 'magic' is made of. (Though, of course, we have no idea if we are first-time readers arriving at the Council.)

We do learn enough about the Ring to be able to figure out what Boromir (and other participants) should deduce about the powers of the Ring as the Council comes to a close. I listed all the evidence they have heard (or maybe not heard all of it, depending on what Frodo covered in his un-reported briefing.)

Jim Deutch

Well-Known Member
We do learn enough about the Ring to be able to figure out what Boromir (and other participants) should deduce about the powers of the Ring
. . . IF they think like we do, with our bias towards reason and science. But we have little evidence of that. The Elves present should have a completely different notion of "magic" -- based on what Galadriel says about it many chapters from now. And Boromir himself? No idea, really! We find later that Boromir has been primarily schooled in war and leadership: it's Faramir who's been a "wizard's pupil" (in the words of his father). I think you're right on in guessing that he is thinking primarily of how the Ring could help/hinder Gondor's war efforts, but how he would be conceptualizing magic is not at all clear.

Rachel Port

Active Member
Jim, I think Boromir is leery of "magic" or anything uncanny. I would guess that he trusts more in human strength and grittiness. He fits the Ring in his mind with this, seeing it as a weapon (of course) that should be used to aid Gondor's efforts against Mordor. He sees the war in those terms, so Elrond's assurance that there are other realms fighting in ways that are hidden from him is not particularly reassuring - he probably does a mental shrug at that and goes on immediately to Gondor's situation - he deals in the tangible, the only place he is really comfortable.


Well-Known Member
Hi Jim and Rachel,

I wouldn't say that Boromir deals only in the tangible. He has travelled for 110 days and 400 leagues seeking Imladris in response to a Dream!

Boromir is certainly willing to respect, and give credence to spiritual phenomena such as Divine Dreams. That is not very tangible.

As Jim says, I do guess that Boromir is thinking of how the Ring could help Gondor's war efforts. But I don't think that he is primarily thinking of that. I think he is primarily thinking about getting answers to his Dream. He has found the sword that was broken. He has identified Isildur's Bane, and the Halfling. They must all be important. But, what are the counsels that will be 'stronger than Morgul-spells'?

Boromir wonders if the Ring could be used, is meant to be used, as a weapon against Sauron. Why might it be useful as such? Because, Boromir has heard that it IS stronger than Morgul-spells. What he has heard at the Council, not least from the writing on the Ring itself, is that he who controls the Ring controls the Ring-wraiths. If the counsel of the Council were, "We should wield the Ring," then the wielder could (as far as Boromir can see) control the Nazgul, eliminate them as a threat to Gondor, and turn them against the forces of Sauron.

That would fit the Dream! As far as Boromir can see, Elrond's counsel, that the Ring should be destroyed, is not stronger than Morgul-spells. It will do nothing to counter the Nazgul. Thus, Boromir is still doubtful. He accepts (at the moment) Elrond's assessment, that it will not work long term to use the Ring against Sauron. But, he has still not heard counsels that are stronger than Morgul-spells. So, he is doubtful that the Council is on the right track.

As far as Boromir is concerned, the job of the Council is to answer the Dream! (Elrond and Gandalf might think that the job of the Council is to answer the question, "Here are we and here is the Ring....What shall we do with it?") Boromir is not, I think, quite as fixated on the Ring as Elrond and Gandalf. He is more fixated on his Dream. The Ring is an artifact (though a powerful and dangerous one), the Dream is a Divine Message! Divine Messages are more important than artifacts, especially to those who have received them (and, I suggest, Boromir is right. Gandalf and Elrond are too fixated on the Ring, and would be Wiser if they paid more attention to the Divine Dream which Boromir has brought).

JRRT has very cleverly constructed this chapter to make us almost forget Faramir and Boromirs' Dream, or to think that it has been dealt with. However, it has not. The Council has not yet come up with counsels stronger than Morgul-spells. Boromir will be doubtful until they do.

Rachel Port

Active Member
One thing you forget, Flammifer: this is first and foremost Faramir's dream. It was Faramir who thought he should go find Imladris and the answer to the dream. Boromir insisted on going instead. He thought his gifts - strength and heartiness - would be better suited to it. Yes, he had the dream once, but I don't think the quest to find the answers to a dream riddle was his. He was interested in the answers, but he had other concerns that for him were at least as important.


Well-Known Member
I think that Faramir and Boromir agreed together that Boromir should go on the quest. Probably because they thought that Denethor would not allow Faramir to go, but could not refuse Boromir.

Boromir had the Dream and believed in it. He also believed in his brother.


Active Member
The Council has not yet come up with counsels stronger than Morgul-spells. Boromir will be doubtful until they do.
To be fair, 'We must send the Ring to the Fire' will prove to be such a counsel--Boromir just doesn't know it yet. (And to be fair to him, as we've said, he has plenty of reasons not to know this. It's unclear how effective Elrond and Gandalf, even, know this gambit could be.)

Rachel Port

Active Member
I just had a strange thought. I remembered this:

'I do not know what you mean by that,' answered the leader of the Elves. 'They are fair garments, and the web is good, for it was made in this land. They are Elvish robes certainly, if that is what you mean. Leaf and branch, water and stone: they have the hue and beauty of all these things under the twilight of Lórien that we love; for we put the thought of all that we love into all that we make.

Did Sauron put the thought of all he loved into the Ring? Is that how he put much of his strength into it? Is that what he loved?

Anthony Lawther

Well-Known Member
Maybe the difference between good magic and evil magic is that good magic involves the thought of love for things, while evil magic involves the thought of desire or dominion of things.

Rachel Port

Active Member
Or what Sauron loved is power, so that got put into the Ring. When thought is an essential ingredient in magic creation, what one thinks of and cares about becomes part of the object, perhaps.

Anthony Lawther

Well-Known Member
Yes, that's another way to say it.
I guess I like mine a little better, because love for something doesn't imply control of it and can be passive.
Desire of something on the other hand is active, and can imply possession and control as the end state.

Sauron desired more power than he already had, so he took this gamble to extend his power.

In many sessions Corey, and others, have stated with certainty that the Ring is acting at a distance on other people because of their rational thoughts that don't align with what we know to be true (e.g. Boromir in the Council.)
What doesn't make sense to me is that if the Ring has this power, why is it only reported as working on a small handful of people, and only by driving them to make rational conclusions that are only debunked with further information? Why are the Nazgul not drawn to it when in proximity?

If one reads the text with a critical eye and looking for evidence of what must be Ring influence, rather than what might be Ring influence, this seems to fit better with what we see: the early Second Age residents of Gondor, the majority of the Hobbits in the Shire (especially Merry and Pippin), the people at the Prancing Pony, Aragorn, Gloin, Legolas and the other Elves in the Council, Gimli, the majority of the Elves in Lothlorien, the Rangers of Ithilien, and even the Orcs in Mordor all seem to be free of Ring temptations. The temptations reported or eluded to are:
Isildur: physical contact - written report in his own words
Gollum: physical contact - account in the Hobbit and Gandalf's report to the council
Bilbo: physical contact - account in the Hobbit, after the party, and the Hall of Fire
Frodo: physical contact - much of the account of the LOTR
Saruman: no physical contact, no offer - Gandalf's report to the council
Gandalf: direct offer and physical contact - his own admission
Elrond: no physical contact, but implied offer - 'I fear to take the Ring to hide it. I will not take the Ring to wield it.'
Boromir: no physical contact, no offer - Narrator's report of a glint in the eye when first seeing the Ring, Narrator's report of fidgeting with his horn before proposing use of the Ring, Boromir's desperate request that Frodo bring the Ring to Minas Tirith followed by his attempt to seize the Ring, and Sam's claim that he knew that Boromir was after the Ring from when he first saw it.
Galadriel: direct offer - her own admission
Sam: physical contact - account of the events on the edge of Mordor
Other than Saruman and Boromir, these are all Ring bearers, of either the One or the Three.

If we reclassify Boromir's behaviour as falling into the same category as Saruman's (overcome by desire for the power that they believe the Ring will grant them) then the only other people we see being tempted by the Ring itself are those who have carried it or have been offered it (While Aragorn's right to ownership was raised I don't see it as an actual offer of the Ring.) Tom Bombadil is a stand-out exception to this, but we've already discussed why that is so.

Rachel Port

Active Member
Yes, but I don't find that the Ring by itself has power to affect people except by raising dramatic and often disastrous desire (Smeagol, Saruman, Boromir). The Ring doesn't have power to dominate others; the Ring would give such powers to the bearer who wields it for the purpose. The Ring is made to enhance the power of the bearer, and exert mastery over the other Rings. This is the story of the Nazgul. The dwarves were immune for some reason, though their rings seem to have accented their worst traits, especially greed. The elves have managed to keep their rings secret from Sauron, even while he wielded the Ring. Perhaps humans are especially vulnerable to subjugation by the rings given to them by Sauron.

I don't see any reason to expect the Ring to affect people at a distance. In fact, even with Saruman and Boromir, it's unclear whether the Ring exerts direct influence or whether the thought of it becomes obsessive. I think it's the Idea of the Ring, personally. Boromir sees it once briefly, and spends a lot of time in its presence, so either could be true. The Ring does not itself have power to dominate others; rather, it give the bearer that power. Isildur didn't have it long enough to know much of anything about it, other than it made him invisible. Smeagol at first used its power for small nastiness in his own small circle until he was banished and eventually hid himself altogether. Bilbo had no idea he had; neither did Frodo until he's had it for 17 years, and has not used it for domination. He will later with Gollum, but I see that differently from most people, it seems. I think he uses the Ring to exact promises from Gollum, but it comes from a feeling of kinship, of understanding that no one but a Ringbearer could feel. And Gollum responds, to the point where love becomes almost possible for him, and it's such a poignant scene on the stairs of Cirith Ungol, when he comes so close. Frodo's use of the Ring to create a relationship is qualitatively different from mere domination. On Mount Doom, of course, all that is changed as the Ring dominates both of them.

Of course, the Ring's effect on the bearers is the strongest power we see, and it seems to be immediate and to increase with time, in a powerfully destructive way. But by itself it doesn't seem to work on others directly except by attraction.

Rob Harding

Active Member
I find it far more terrifying in the abstract. It is to The Lord of the Rings what the shark is to Jaws or the alien to Alien. Poke it too much and it becomes knowable. Once fully seen, the horror is somewhat lessened. Seeing the aftermath of it though is gruesome and terrifying. I think the terror comes from its unknowableness and attempts to understand it are in themselves ruinious. Taking apart a thing to see how it works is not a recommended course of action if I remember. Not to say it isn't fun to speculate, I certainly like doing it (see The Orc Problem) but for me the power of the ring is diminished in doing so.

I'm not trying to say we shouldn't try to calculate what it's 'powers' may be however. I think the answer IS that it's power is...power. I think that is the root of all of it. The specifics of how it works we don't know. Sauron poured his will into it (whatever that is supposed to mean and however that actually plays out) so we know it contains power. We know it is able to exert power in the abstract and engender a lust for power (though we're never entirely sure of how much this is an active attribute or an inevitable lust felt in most beings) an this lust for power is somehow consuming, controlling and reductive (making people less to the point of fading physically as well as mentally and morally). Its power is its power. It's a cyclical answer. That's how I read it anyway.

Rachel Port

Active Member
It's like the eye of a hurricane - peaceful with a blue sky while all around is chaos and destruction.

Sometimes I think we make everything more complicated than it needs to be. I enjoy these discussions, but taking the magic out of something magical is - well, a little compulsive. Taking something apart to see how it works - what is it Gandalf says to Saruman? "And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom."


I find it far more terrifying in the abstract. It is to The Lord of the Rings what the shark is to Jaws or the alien to Alien. Poke it too much and it becomes knowable. Once fully seen, the horror is somewhat lessened. Seeing the aftermath of it though is gruesome and terrifying. I think the terror comes from its unknowableness and attempts to understand it are in themselves ruinous. Taking apart a thing to see how it works is not a recommended course of action if I remember. Not to say it isn't fun to speculate, I certainly like doing it (see The Orc Problem) but for me the power of the ring is diminished in doing so.
You have fairly neatly paraphrased at least part of Jung's idea of a symbol. Fundamentally, a symbol represents something we cannot fully know. An object merely used to represent a known idea is a sign, not a symbol, and therefore contains much less. Quoting some of Jung's often technical and difficult prose from the Collected Works (the definitions chapter of Psychological Types):

51. SYMBOL. The concept of a symbol should in my view be strictly distinguished from that of a sign. Symbolic and semiotic meanings are entirely different things. In his book on symbolism, Ferrero does not speak of symbols in the strict sense, but of signs. For instance, the old custom of handing over a piece of turf at the sale of a plot of land might be described as "symbolic" in the vulgar sense of the word, but actually it is purely semiotic in character. The piece of turf is a sign, or token, standing for the whole estate. The winged wheel worn by railway officials is not a symbol of the railway, but a sign that distinguishes the personnel of the railway system. A symbol always presupposes that the chosen expression is the best possible description or formulation of a relatively unknown fact, which is none the less known to exist or is postulated as existing. Thus, when the badge of a railway official is explained as a symbol, it amounts to saying that this man has something to do with an unknown system that cannot be differently or better expressed than by a winged wheel.

-- C. G. Jung, Psychological Types (1921), CW 6: para. 814, p. 473-474
It gets more interesting further along. Trying to convert symbolic meaning to semiotic meaning is 'allegory'... I think there might be some degree of agreement between Jung and Tolkien on the abuses of 'allegory' as a forced means to convey meanings.

Every view which interprets the symbolic expression as an analogue or an abbreviated designation for a known thing is semiotic. A view which interprets the symbolic expression as the best possible formulation of a relatively unknown thing, which for that reason cannot be more clearly or characteristically represented, is symbolic. A view which interprets the symbolic expression as an intentional paraphrase or transmogrification of a known thing is allegoric. The interpretation of the cross as a symbol of divine love is semiotic, because "divine love" describes the fact to be expressed better and more aptly than a cross, which can have many other meanings. On the other hand, an interpretation of the cross is symbolic when it puts the cross beyond all conceivable explanations, regarding it as expressing an as yet unknown and incomprehensible fact of a mystical or transcendent, i.e., psychological, nature, which simply finds itself most appropriately represented in the cross.

-- C. G. Jung, Psychological Types (1921), CW 6: para. 815, p. 474