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As has been noted in many instances Sauron was searching for the One Ring and it has been subtly suggested that the ring itself was trying to get back to Sauron. That's why it deserted Gollum after all those centuries.
It is also know that Sauron invested vast amounts of his power in the Ring.

So why was he unable to detect it unless someone was wearing it?

Saruman discovers that Sauron's servants are searching the Anduin near Gladden Fields, and that Sauron therefore has learned of Isildur's end. He is alarmed, but says nothing to the Council.
The Return of the King, LoTR Appendix B, The Tale of Years: The Third Age

Also:

Sauron intended it to be the most powerful of all Rings, able to rule and control those who wore the others. Since the other Rings were themselves powerful, Sauron was obliged to place much of his own power into the One to achieve his purpose.
The Silmarillion, "Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age", p. 287–288

  • I thought about that. Most likely he wasn't fully functional I Modor at that time. Can't prove it yet. – Athena Widget Dec 14 '15 at 0:33
  • Why do you think he should be able to detect the Ring? That Sauron put much of himself into the Ring, and that the Ring was probably trying to get back to Sauron, do not imply that Sauron should have some kind of Ring Radar. – Shamshiel Dec 14 '15 at 0:46
  • He was able to detect the Ring as well as the wearer. I think the answer lies in that. Both move into the 'nether dimension' I can't find the appropriate reference. – Athena Widget Dec 14 '15 at 0:48
  • Sauron never detected the Ring, even when people were wearing it, except when Frodo claimed in literally in the volcano and almost on the Hill of Seeing. There's no reason to think Sauron had any kind of Ring-detecting ability under normal circumstances. Otherwise, he would have known Aragorn was not using the Ring. – Shamshiel Dec 14 '15 at 0:49
  • Seems you are correct it we take only the books as canon. If that's the case I'll delete this. Excellent point about 'claming for his own'. Make me re-read the book section. Thx! – Athena Widget Dec 14 '15 at 1:20
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There's no reason to believe Sauron could detect the Ring or when anyone was using the Ring, except under exceptional circumstances:

One time almost, on the Hill of Seeing, which was a special place - considering Frodo was able to see an incredible amount of places and happenings:

Then at last his gaze was held: wall upon wall, battlement upon battlement, black, immeasurably strong, mountain of iron, gate of steel, tower of adamant, he saw it: Barad-dûr, Fortress of Sauron. All hope left him.

And suddenly he felt the Eye. There was an eye in the Dark Tower that did not sleep. He knew that it had become aware of his gaze. A fierce eager will was there. It leaped towards him; almost like a finger he felt it, searching for him. Very soon it would nail him down, know just exactly where he was. Amon Lhaw it touched. It glanced upon Tol Brandir - he threw himself from the seat, crouching, covering his head with his grey hood.

Barad-dur was quite some distance away*, not to mention behind a mountain range. Frodo had some degree of supernatural sight on the Hill of Seeing. It makes 'magical' sense that to see everything, Frodo must to some degree make himself visible, particularly to Palantir-wielders like Sauron.

The only other instance was this:

And far away, as Frodo put on the Ring and claimed it for his own, even in Sammath Naur the very heart of his realm, the Power in Barad-dûr was shaken, and the Tower trembled from its foundations to its proud and bitter crown. The Dark Lord was suddenly aware of him, and his Eye piercing all shadows looked across the plain to the door that he had made; and the magnitude of his own folly was revealed to him in a blinding flash, and all the devices of his enemies were at last laid bare. Then his wrath blazed in consuming flame, but his fear rose like a vast black smoke to choke him. For he knew his deadly peril and the thread upon which his doom now hung.

Frodo not only put the Ring on, he claimed it as his own with full knowledge of the Ring's power and what it was, and of the consequences, in 'the very heart of his realm', where the Ring was itself forged. This is clearly a magically significant event in a magically significant place.

There's no reason to believe that elsewhere and under normal circumstances that Sauron could detect people wearing the Ring. Indeed, if this was possible, Gandalf and Aragorn's feint would have been a tremendous failure, because it depended on Sauron believing that Aragorn had and was wielding the One Ring.

‘As Aragorn has begun, so we must go on. We must push Sauron to his last throw. We must call out his hidden strength, so that he shall empty his land. We must march out to meet him at once. We must make ourselves the bait, though his jaws should close on us. He will take that bait, in hope and in greed, for he will think that in such rashness he sees the pride of the new Ringlord: and he will say: “So! he pushes out his neck too soon and too far. Let him come on, and behold I will have him in a trap from which he cannot escape. There I will crush him, and what he has taken in his insolence shall be mine again for ever.”

Sam is certainly no expert, but he believes he is only in danger wearing the Ring inside Mordor.

‘And anyway all these notions are only a trick,’ he said to himself. ‘He'd spot me and cow me, before I could so much as shout out. He'd spot me, pretty quick, if I put the Ring on now, in Mordor.

It is clear that Sauron was totally ignorant of Sam's Ring use on the very outskirts of Mordor:

Now the flicker of approaching torches and the clink of steel ahead was very near. In a minute they would reach the top and be on him. He had taken too long in making up his mind, and now it was no good. How could he escape, or save himself, or save the Ring? The Ring. He was not aware of any thought or decision. He simply found himself drawing out the chain and taking the Ring in his hand. The head of the ore-company appeared in the Cleft right before him. Then he put it on.

The world changed, and a single moment of time was filled with an hour of thought. At once he was aware that hearing was sharpened while sight was dimmed, but otherwise than in Shelob's lair. All things about him now were not dark but vague; while he himself was there in a grey hazy world, alone, like a small black solid rock, and the Ring, weighing down his left hand, was like an orb of hot gold. He did not feel invisible at all, but horribly and uniquely visible; and he knew that somewhere an Eye was searching for him.

The danger in using the Ring prior to their arrival in Mordor was not that Sauron would detect them (he would eventually detect an overt use, if say one person suddenly appeared leading all the others in a united front with absolutely subservient armies), but that trying to use the real power of the Ring would break Frodo.

'Only thrice have you set the Ring upon your finger since you knew what you possessed. Do no try! It would destroy you. Did not Gandalf tell you the rings give power according to the measure of their possessor? Before you could use that power you would need to become far stronger, and train your will to the domination of others.'

Note though, that at the end, Frodo was quite possibly using the power of the Ring to dominate the will of others - namely Gollum.

Sauron did put himself into the Ring - true. But in so doing, he externalized that power. It was bound up with him, but not a part of him like a limb that he knew where it was at at all times. That was the price Sauron paid for creating the Ring.

(all quotes from LotR)

(* It looks like Sam and Frodo traveled about another 500 miles from Amon Hen to Sammath Naur, but I'm not sure what the distance is as the crow flies.)

  • Are we taking the books as sole canon? If so I'll accept this answer. – Athena Widget Dec 14 '15 at 1:25
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    Well, it's up to you, if you want a movie answer, you'll have to ask specifically for the movie. :) I had almost forgotten the eye imagery in the movie, and being a elitist snob I only saw them once. I would hesitatingly suggest based on my now ten year old memories that while Frodo was always aware Sauron was searching for the Ring in the movies, he still couldn't detect him under normal circumstances. – Shamshiel Dec 14 '15 at 1:29
  • I knew you would say that. Now I'm in a quandary. I much prefer your answer but I suspect some other Q and A already use the movies as canon. Let others chime in on this. Excellent points and answer. Thx a million. – Athena Widget Dec 14 '15 at 1:49

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