No, the title isn’t referring to something lame like Faramir having to wear Boromir’s old socks or Elrond inheriting Eärendil’s wife beaters. The ultimate hand-me-down in Middle-earth is none other than (dun, dun, dun!) the One Ring itself.
The thing about the One Ring is: one guy made It (using part of himself to do so, mind you), a lot of the wrong people want It, and, thankfully, only a few of them get It. [Notice in this article I’m using the genderless, proper object pronoun “It” to discuss the One Ring, as is Its wont. I ain’t no English professor, but I am sensitive to the emotional needs of the objects in Tolkien’s creation.] The history of the Ring isn’t actually that difficult to understand or that complicated. In fact, for most of Its lifetime, It lies at the bottom of a river. However, those who are interested in such things should be acquainted with the history of one of the single most important objects to ever have (fictionally) existed. What follows is a brief account of the One Ring: who held It, for how long, and how It was passed on.
Here’s a preview:
- Frodo (again)
- Gollum (again)
[The * on Frodo will be explained in his section below.]
Every hand-me-down starts somewhere, whether it’s a pair of socks sewn in a Taiwanese textile mill, or an evil trinket that a corrupted Maia literally pours his soul into inside an active volcano; oddly enough, the latter is specifically what we’re dealing with here. In roughly the middle of the Second Age of Middle-earth (c. 1600), the Dark Lord Sauron made his own horcrux (the original horcrux, you Harry Posers) by imbuing a golden ring with his own evil essence in the Sammath Naur (‘Chambers of Fire’) of Mount Doom.
It’s not everyday you have the opportunity of utilizing the forces of a volcano located in your backyard, so who can really blame him? He makes this wicked bauble and essentially attempts to take over the known world with it. He would have succeeded, but those meddling Elves and Númenóreans didn’t really appreciate the whole “subjugation to another Dark Lord” thing. At the close of the Second Age, the son of King Elendil, Isildur, cuts the Ring from Sauron’s hand after his father and Elf-buddy, Gil-galad, defeat him in hand-to-hand combat, both dying in the process.
Total time with the One Ring: About 1840 years
Another Fact article (Tolkien fact 62) gives a few more details about Isildur and his relationship to the Ring, but here we look at only the bare essentials. Both his brother (Anárion) and father were killed in the great battle against Sauron, and so the newfound King of Gondor (and Arnor) gleefully took the One Ring from the hand of his family’s killer as a weregild (which is an old word that is roughly equivalent to “blood money”). Sauron took Isildur’s family, so Isildur took Sauron’s…ring… what a trade. It was not doomed to last, though.
Isildur made a few arrangements in Gondor, making sure everything was in order for the next of kin to rule the southern kingdom, and he made ready to ride north and take up the rule of Arnor, previously ruled by his father. If you’re reading this, you likely are familiar with what happens next: on his way up north his company is ambushed by orcs and he almost escapes with the Ring, but It slips off his finger while he is swimming and he is shot with arrows. The Ring sinks to the bed of Anduin and is not seen for a long time. We’re off to a great start with mortals handling the Ring.
Total time with the One Ring: About 1 year
Total time the One Ring is at the bottom of the Great River: About 2460 years
The poor, poor little ring: It sits all alone on the bottom of a river for two and half millennia. As fortune (or fate) would have it, a little hobbit-related creature is fishing in the same area and just so happens to end up in the water around the same spot as the Ring.
Poor, poor Déagol is the next to find It, and he doesn’t even have enough time to really learn what he’s found before he’s done away with. His cousin, Sméagol, sees the trinket in his hand and winds up murdering him for It. We’re two-for-one with Ring-related deaths so far.
Total time with the One Ring: uhhhh, maybe 5 minutes?
Ahh, precious Sméagol, who doesn’t love him? He begins his relationship with the Ring in a murderous, envious manner, and (spoiler) ends his relationship with It in a similar fashion. (Gollum is obviously the name he is later given in scorn and is much easier to type, as it involves no “Alt-code” like the “é”, and so I’ll use that name from now on.)
Lucky him, he “inherits” the Ring on his birthday and immediately sets off to cheat, deceive, and steal with It. The Ring obviously has Its own “corruption” aspect, but Gollum was about as rotten when he got the Ring as when he lost it. The Ring drove him into a crazed isolation and he wound up under the Misty Mountains alone and angry at everything. The Ring doesn’t give life or really take it away, but the bearer just “continues” and so Gollum persisted long passed his normal lifespan. The Ring is not necessarily as sentient as the film adaptation would lead you to believe, but It can sense when Its bearer is a “dead-end” of sorts. Gollum was pitiful and alone. It wasn’t going anywhere if It stayed with him. So, as with Isildur, It abandoned the wretched creature, only to be “…picked up by the most unlikely creature imaginable…” (You either read that in Galadriel’s voice or you shouldn’t be reading this at all.) The Ring leaves Gollum without killing him (this time), the first to break Its spree.
Total time with the One Ring: About 480 years + about 20 seconds in the Sammath Naur
This hobbit’s adventure has been told in many, many other places (and in an unnecessary amount of films) and so I will only linger on the details relevant to Mr. Baggins’ finding and passing on of the Ring.
Bilbo blindly lays his hand on the Ring in the pitch-black of the tunnels under the Misty Mountains. He doesn’t even realize what he’s found until after his encounter with Gollum, but the rest of his adventure is almost a cakewalk thanks the invisibility granted by his Magic Ring. It’s key to note here that Bilbo’s finding of the Ring is marked by his pity and mercy on Gollum. Gollum came into possession of the Ring out of greed and a murderous heart, but Bilbo came into ownership of It while sparing the life of someone who did not deserve to live. (I very much look forward to writing a Fact on the theme of Mercy in The Lord of the Rings in the near future; it’s very intriguing and intricate.) Ultimately, Bilbo takes the Ring and very little harm comes of it in his own life. In fact, as I’ve said, It helps him survive his own adventure and prolongs his life to live in a neat and safe country far away from many dangers of the world. In the end, though, Bilbo is convinced by his Wizard friend to depart with It before heading out on his final adventures. As the beginning of his ownership of It was unnaturally good and pleasant, so his passing on of it was almost as remarkable. In spite of the fact that he was obviously reluctant to give It up, and required a good deal of persuading (and even intimidating) by Gandalf, Bilbo ultimately gave up the Ring of his own will and accord. The Ring passed peacefully into the hands of his heir.
Total time with the One Ring: About 60 years
If Bilbo’s time with the Ring was a respite from the usual evil and death that surrounded It, Frodo’s unhappy time with It likely made up for all of that fortune and then some. Not that he was aware of what he had when It was passed to him by his uncle, but it wasn’t long before Gandalf came to him and revealed that the Ring he possessed was the worst piece of jewelry he would ever own. I also won’t recount here all of Frodo’s adventures with the Ring either, but it is of note that He was the first Ring-bearer since Isildur that knew what he possessed, and was the first Ring-bearer period that attempted to destroy It.
His time with the One Ring involved run-ins with Ring-wraiths; engagements with giant octopus-like-things; 2000-hour-long councils with really old Elves; betrayal by people he trusted; having to smell Gollum for a long time; getting stabbed, stung, and bitten; not to mention having to slog through the Plateau of Gorgoroth only to also have to climb up the side of an active volcano all while running low on food and water and being really dirty and smelly himself. Being a Ring-bearer ain’t that fun. More information about Frodo and his ultimate fate (and subsequent failure) with the Ring can be found in this post, but for now we leave it here for a minute as the Ring changes hands a couple of times briefly before (spoilers) being destroyed.
*The mark beside Frodo’s name in the Preview list above signifies that there are actually times during his possession of the Ring where other people touch or handle It briefly. Gandalf is one such person as Frodo hands It to him to inspect and he throws into the fireplace to see the secret writing on It. A little later on, Frodo finds himself in the House of Tom Bombadil when he’s asked for the Ring by his enigmatic host. Frodo surprisingly yields the Ring immediately and, even more surprisingly, Tom doesn’t disappear when he puts It on. Finally, Frodo wakes up at Rivendell after the incident at the Ford of Bruinen to find that the Ring has been placed on a new, sturdy chain about his neck. It’s speculative (though likely) that someone had to at least handle the Ring in order to fasten It on the new chain.*
Total time with the One Ring: About 18 years
The last (but certainly not least) bearer of the One Ring we will look at is good old Samwise the Stouthearted. A little dull, a little dim-witted, but filled with passion and courage, Sam Gamgee is the perfect servant to take into a Black Land with you. A closer look at what Sam actually contributes to the story can be found in this post, but, as with the others, we will only look at his relationship with the Ring here.
There’s not much to say, but what little there is to say is very important. Sam, by no design of his own, is left with the dire choice to take the Ring from his master when Frodo is knocked out by Shelob (and thought to be dead). Everyone has their own temptations when it comes to the Ring: whether it’s to kill your cousin (Gollum), to trick your annoying relatives (Bilbo), or to defend your homeland (Boromir). Sam’s brief time with the Ring also involved a simple temptation, fitting for his own little will. His seeming choice was to claim It for his own and (somehow) challenge the Power of Mordor and overthrow Sauron to turn Gorgoroth into an enormous garden. Indeed, Sam was genuinely tempted with this strange yet endearing offer, but heroically turned away and continued on with the real quest. He goes on to find Frodo and returns the Ring to his master, only to regret doing so in watching Frodo crawl and drag his feet across the miles of barren land in Mordor.
Total time with the One Ring: About 1 day
Hopefully it’s no surprise to anyone reading this far down that the One Ring is destroyed when Gollum bites Frodo’s finger off in the Cracks of Doom and dances off the edge into the Fire on accident. (If that is a surprise to you, I don’t even feel bad for spoiling it. You deserve it if you haven’t read or watched this stuff and you’re reading an awful amateur blog about it.) The Ring goes into the Fire and Its history comes to conclusion.
As for the Ring-bearers, Bilbo and Frodo are allowed a spot on the ship with the Three Rings’s bearers heading to the Undying Lands. (The films make you think they’re going to Heaven or something, but mortals actually still die after a little while living there. The “undying” part refers to those that live there: the Valar and the Elves.) Sam also eventually gets a ship to take him into the West, but only after he lives a long and happy life in the Shire.
All told, the Ring existed for about 4,860 years. That’s an old ring. All It ever wanted to do was get back to Its master. Thankfully, it wasn’t able to do so and Sauron never saw again the smallest but most important thing he had ever loved. I bet you didn’t know that The Lord of the Rings was actually a tragic love story between a corrupted Maia and his long-lost trifle. It’s a long story, and it’s sad, but it’s still a better love story than Twilight (are we still making those jokes?).