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It says in The Fellowship of the Ring that Sauron learned that the One Ring was still in existence, partially from Gollum. Gandalf says, during his explanation to Frodo,

He believed that the One had perished; that the Elves had destroyed it... 1

However, how could he have thought this if he was reincarnated? I thought that after Isildur defeated Sauron he was reduced "back into shadow" and that the only reason he was able to reappear was because the Ring still existed. So wouldn't Sauron have known the Ring was still around, because otherwise he couldn't have came back?

―――
1 Fellowship of the Ring, Book I Chapter 2: "The Shadow of the Past", two pages after Gandalf throws the ring into the fire.

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Harry asks about this in Prince chapter 23. Dumbledore's answer is that because the Dark Lord ‘is now so immersed in evil, and these crucial parts of himself have been detached for so long, he does not feel as we do.’ – b_jonas Jan 6 '13 at 21:49
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@b_jonas Hah hah, I see what you did there. – Andres F. Jan 6 '13 at 21:59
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The other answers, especially spicyokooko's are well done but it's worth noting that this is Gandalf's explanation. This does not make it true. Gandalf while very wise, does not know everything. This explanation is what he deduced based on what he learned. Also, Sauron was defeated and killed by Gil-Galad and Elendil, not Isildur. Isildur merely cut the Ring from the dead body of Sauron afterward. – italia06828334 Jan 16 '13 at 19:25
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@WadCheber Bear in mind that there's a dramatic irony: We know that his continuing existence is only possible because the ring hasn't been destroyed, but we don't know that he knew this. – Darael May 23 '15 at 20:55
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Gandalf also said at one point: "...let folly be our cloak, a veil before the eyes of the Enemy! For he is very wise, and weighs all things to a nicety in the scales of his malice. But the only measure that he knows is desire, desire for power; and so he judges all hearts. Into his heart the thought will not enter that any will refuse it, that having the Ring we may seek to destroy it. If we seek this, we shall put him out of reckoning." So at one point he says Sauron thinks the Ring to be destroyed, but at another moment he says the thought would never occur to Sauron. – Dennis_E Jun 16 at 10:07

The Ring, and the portion of Sauron's power within it, is indeed what tied him to Middle-Earth, but there is no reason he had to be aware of this. If Sauron had information from a source he believed reliable that the One Ring had been destroyed, he would be likely to believe that his continued existence was due to keeping a greater part of his power in himself than he had previously thought.

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I seem to recall, having had a little more time to think, that it was stated that he could only sense the Ring when someone was wearing it. Thus it is only after it came into the possession of Smeagol (later Gollum) that he might have known of its continued existence. To tie into thy point, as the Necromancer he may have had insufficient strength to sense it, or possibly he had to be consciously seeking it while it was worn. In this wise, it would only be after Gollum's report that he would have been able to find the Ring. – Darael Jan 6 '13 at 21:22
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We know that, but there's no reason Sauron necessarily knew that it was the continued existence of the One Ring that kept him "alive". As far as he knew, he may simply have retained enough power himself. Since he couldn't sense the One Ring save when someone wore it, he naturally didn't know where it was, but more than that: he had no specific reason to believe it still existed. The knowledge that it was the Ring that bound him to Middle-Earth is available to the reader but not necessarily to him. – Darael Jan 7 '13 at 19:17
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@spiceyokooko Because my point is that there is no reason to believe Sauron knew that he still existed only because of the Ring. We, the readers, know that, but we are never told that Sauron does. Thou art conflating knowledge available to the reader with knowledge available to a specific character. – Darael Jan 7 '13 at 21:26
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That is not what I said. What I said was that we have no reason to believe he's aware of the fact that the only reason he still exists is that the Ring does. He knew that he poured a great part of his strength into it, and that without it he was diminished, but he could reasonably conclude given what he knew that he retained enough native strength to survive without it, dost see? – Darael Jan 7 '13 at 22:01
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It's simple. Assuming that Gandalf is correct, then Sauron does not know that the Ring maintained his existence; his continued existence would probably be a mystery to him. Once he learned that the Ring was still around, he figured it out, knew what danger he was in, and wanted the Ring back. Alternatively, Gandalf is wrong, and Sauron knew all the relevant facts all along, but needed to hide what he knew. As soon as he became powerful enough (as he thought) to reclaim the Ring, he felt free to make his intentions more widely known, and hopefully expedite matters in the process. – Wolfie Inu Nov 10 '15 at 7:15

It says in the fellowship of the ring that Sauron learned that the One Ring was still in existence, partially from Gollum.

No, this is not correct.

He learnt from Gollum that he once had a ring

After the creature Gollum, who had previously possessed the ring, was captured, Sauron had him tortured and learned that he once had a magic ring, and from him he heard the words Shire and Baggins. He deduced that Gollum's ring was the One Ring, and sent his servants the Nine to find Shire and search for Baggins, so that the One Ring might be found and brought back to him.

Source

He deduced that Gollum's ring was the One Ring.

That's entirely different to learning that the One Ring was still in existence.

If the One Ring had been destroyed then Sauron would have been destroyed with it. The fact that Sauron wasn't destroyed means that the One Ring was still in existence (and Sauron knew it still existed) but didn't know where it was or who possessed it.


One Ring Timeline

Second Age 1500, Celebrimbor forges the 16 rings under the instruction of Annatar, who is Sauron in disguise.

Second Age 1600, Sauron forges the One Ring to rule all the others.

Second Age 1700, Gil-galad and Tar-Minastrir destroy Saurons army forcing him back to Mordor to regroup.

Second Age 3261, Ar-Pharazôn, the last of the Kings of Númenor, do battle with Sauron in contention of his self-proclaimed title of Overlord of Middle-Earth. Sauron is defeated and captured but through the use of the One Ring is able to turn the Númenóreans against Valar and towards worship of Melkor and human sacrifice.

Second Age 3429, Although Sauron's body is destroyed in the Fall of Númenor, his spirt was able to bear the One Ring back to middle earth and he wielded it in his renewed war against the Last Alliance of Elves and Men. The One Ring is cut from Saurons hand by Isilidur.

Third Age 2, Isildur loses the ring in the River Anduin just before he is killed by an orc ambush.

It's at this point that Gandalf suggests in The Fellowship of the Ring that Sauron thinks the One Ring is destroyed. Notice there's almost 2,400 years between the One Ring being lost and Déagol finding it in the River Gladden.

Third Age 2430, Déagol finds the ring in the River Gladden, a tributary of the Anduin and is killed by Sméagol for it.

Notice that Sméagol/Gollum possesses the One Ring for almost 500 years before Bilbo finds it. Sauron is fully aware of its existence during this time.

Third Age 2941, Bilbo finds the One Ring.

Notice how Bilbo only has the One Ring for about 60 years.

Third Age 3001, Bilbo hands the One Ring to Frodo.

Third Age 3018, Sméagol dies in Mount Doom and the One Ring is destroyed.

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From The Fellowship of the Ring: "He believed that the One had perished; that the Elves had destroyed it, as should have been done. But he knows now that it has not perished, that it has been found." Ergo, Sauron believed the ring to be destroyed, at least according to Gandalf. – user1027 Jan 8 '13 at 2:12
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So does the quote cited by Keen saying "He believed that the One had perished; that the Elves had destroyed it..." make you wrong in your argument up there with Darael? – Safado Jan 8 '13 at 19:53
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You're basing that on a lot assumptions though. I'm just saying ... – Safado Jan 8 '13 at 20:27
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@spiceyokooko So then, you can provide a citation for "given his power started to grow again he must have sensed it had not been destroyed and was in fact lost"? – user1027 Jan 10 '13 at 3:58
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@spiceyokooko I didn't cite any evidence, fluffy or otherwise. In fact, I said that we didn't have evidence for thy assumption that Sauron must have known that the Ring hadn't been destroyed. Thy claim that Sauron knows of the Ring's existence during the 500 years that Sméagol/Gollum is the key to thy answer, but it's not backed up, and that's why the answer I gave (which very clearly says "It's possible", not "This is how it was", by the way) is a reasonable one. – Darael Jan 17 '13 at 0:25

There is a bit of a contradiction here.

In 2941 of the Third Age, Bilbo finds the Ring. However, in the article "On the Rings of Power and the Third Age" he wrote (more or less)

In T.A. 2851, after a meeting of the White Council, Saruman began searching near the Gladden Fields for the One Ring.[3] He became alarmed to discover that Sauron's servants were also searching the region.[9]

So if Sauron thought the Ring was destroyed at the start of the Age, what was he doing searching Gladden Fields decades before Bilbo takes it from Gollum?

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From the back-and-forth discussions and references quoted in answers above, it seems logical to conclude (as logical as we can make a fictional person acting within fictional events):

  1. Sauron was defeated and the ring cut from his hand. His spirit was diminished to the point of non-existence, or at least near-absolute non-consciousness for quite some time. He was oblivious to the actions (or inaction) of Isildur and the Ring.

  2. Sauron's spirit slowly starts to re-materialize within Middle Earth. Likely wandering aimlessly, although still filled with his usual malice and memories of what had been done to him. At this early point in his resurgence He thinks his Precious ring was destroyed at the same time he was, likely by Isildur or the Elves (Gandalf's interpretation anyway).

  3. Time passes and he continues to grow in strength. His Nazgul lieutenants are still active (the Witch King of Angmar in particular), and start wreaking general havoc within the fractured kingdoms of Men and Elves of the time. Here we could infer that Sauron may have begun to suspect that his Ring may not have been destroyed, but merely lost.

  4. Sauron ends up in Mirkwood under his guise as the Necromancer. I suspect by this point he knows about the One Ring's continued existence and that it's not far from Mirkwood (which lies next to both the Gladden Fields and Misty Mountains, making his choice of a home base seem pretty reasonable). He probably learns through various means of Isildur's ultimate fate and how the ring 'fell out of all knowledge' around this time. He starts sending scouts and agents afield to search for it, just as Saruman has started doing.

  5. Years later, after reestablishing himself within Mordor, he captures Gollum and finally confirms the existence of his One Ring and that it was held for a time by this miserable creature. He now knows it must be in the possession of a 'Baggins' in a place called 'Shire', and sets things in motion to retrieve it to restore him to full power and assert his mastery over Middle Earth.

So it's not inconceivable that at one point early in Sauron's 'disembodied spirit' days he truly believed his ring was destroyed, and had no idea that it was it's continued existence that kept his Spirit bound within Middle Earth (and allowed it to grow in strength over time). It may have been merely a temporary gap in his understanding of how intertwined both his fate and that of the Ring's truly was.

But it's also likely he soon surmised the nature and reason of his continued existence, and took actions to try and find that which was lost. His questioning of Gollum merely confirmed what he already long suspected, and filled in a crucial 'missing piece of the puzzle' of what happened to the ring after it was taken from him.

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