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We all know what was written on the surface of the One Ring—visible when the metal was heated, as it had been upon Mairon the smith's hand.

Black Speech

Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul,
ash nazg thrakatulûk, agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.

One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

However, it occurred to me that the claims of this verse are not entirely accurate. The One Ring gave Sauron the power to rule the other rings and their wearers. For the sixteen rings that he himself had helped create, his power over them remained even after he lost the One.

However, the other parts of the verse seemed to be more "aspirational" than real. In particular, the One Ring did not give him the ability to find the Three, which he had never touched. As long as they were inactive, he was never able to locate them. He thus could not gather them to himself the way he did the others.

Did Tolkien ever comment on this question, in his essays or letters? Was it merely a matter of the Dark Lord's hubris, thinking that he would be able to master all the Great Rings, including the Three, and bring them under his dominion? Or did the question pass unnoticed?

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    It's a statement of what the Ring is for; obviously it's aspirational, since at the time it was written none of the other rings were under his control yet. – DavidW Nov 5 '20 at 3:36
  • I don't know if the statement being an aspiration would be the correct word, its matter of fact of what the ring was for. The elven rings themselves are different because they were given to the Elves and the Elves are hard to sway. Even Galadriel remarks in the 3rd age "I say to you, Frodo, that even as I speak to you, I perceive the Dark Lord and know his mind, or all of his mind that concerns the Elves. And he gropes ever to see me and my thought. But still the door is closed!" Meaning that even without the One, Sauron is still able to get close, but the Elves magic keep him at bay. – McFuu Nov 5 '20 at 4:16
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    Possibly the inscription is a spell to give power to the ring to find and control the other rings of powers. – M. A. Golding Nov 5 '20 at 15:17
  • Sauron did not have power over the other Rings after he lost the One, though some of his "spirt" remained in the Seven. As for the Nazgul, Sauron initially use the One Ring to control the wearers of the Nine, but he had regained physically possession of those Rings long before losing the One. – chepner Nov 5 '20 at 17:44
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Gandalf says more than once that if he regains the One, then all that is protected by the Three will be laid bare. Before Isildur cut the Ring from Sauron, the elves and men were stronger and could resist him. If I recall correctly, he had gathered the others to him before the last alliance. And since he hasn’t touched the Three directly, they could hold out against him in the earlier age.

Also remember that when he forged the One, I’m pretty sure he didn’t know of the Three. So if the inscription was put there when it was forged (highly likely) that suggests the Lay of Beleriand was composed after the inscription, and likely after Isildur took the ring.

So perhaps at the time of its forging, the inscription was aspirational with respect to the Three but only because Sauron was ignorant of the Three. By the end of the Third Age, the power of the elves has waned and the One would have indeed given Sauron mastery over the Three (according to Gandalf, at least).

Furthermore it’s not clear how much power he has over the Seven. He reclaimed them or they were consumed by dragons, but that doesn’t mean his power over them was strong while he was without the one. The Nine corrupted the wearers themselves, and I recall Gandalf talking about men being most susceptible among the races of Middle Earth. It’s entirely possible that either Sauron destroyed the remaining of the Seven or they simply lay hidden and dormant somewhere in Mordor or Dol Guldur.

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    Before Isildur cut the Ring from Sauron, the elves were not using their rings. They took them off as soon as Sauron put on the One, otherwise they would be under his will. – OrangeDog Nov 5 '20 at 11:49
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    Good answer, but I suggest you add the quote: "Gandalf: 'The Enemy still lacks ... the One Ring... So it is now: ...The Three are hidden still. But that no longer troubles him. He only needs the One; for he made that Ring himself, it is his, and he let a great part of his own former power pass into it, so that he could rule all the others. If he recovers it, then he will command them all again, wherever they be, even the Three, and all that has been wrought with them will be laid bare, and he will be stronger than ever.' " – Mark Olson Nov 5 '20 at 12:56
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    Sauron didn't have all of the other Rings until he took the last of the Seven from Thráin in Dol Guldur. – Spencer Nov 5 '20 at 14:15
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    When was the full poem written that contains the lines from within the ring? It references the three rings for the elves as well as the others. – Tango Nov 10 '20 at 20:16
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If any of the other rings were in active use, then the verse is correct.

Sauron could not discover them, for they were given into the hands of the Wise, who concealed them and never again used them openly while Sauron kept the Ruling Ring [...] yet they also were subject to the One.

-- Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age

It is not until after the Last Alliance that the holders of the Three start to use them. It is also made clear that should Sauron recover the One, then the works of the Three (e.g. Rivendell and Lothlorien) would be under his control.

If he recovers [the One], then he will command them all again, wherever they be, even the Three, and all that has been wrought with them will be laid bare, and he will be stronger than ever.

-- The Fellowship of The Ring

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    Except for the Dwarven rings, which never had the intended effect on Dwarves, hence Sauron taking back the ones not already destroyed by dragons. – suchiuomizu Nov 5 '20 at 15:46
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    "It is not until after the Last Alliance that the holders of the Three start to use them." I don't think that's quite right. Before Sauron made The One Ring, they almost certainly used the three--but when he put on The One, they immediately perceived their danger, and took them off (and didn't use them again until Sauron lost The One). – Jerry Coffin Nov 5 '20 at 18:59
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    @JerryCoffin yes, I was only counting while the One existed. – OrangeDog Nov 5 '20 at 19:36

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