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In the same way that Melkor grew weaker across the ages by 'expending' himself into his monstrous creations, Sauron must have similarly expended himself into the creation of his Ring, which didn't appear to have a physical effect on him until he was directly separated from it. It's possible the reason the other ring makers were all "deceived by Sauron" was that the art of ring smithing conveyed an aspect of Sauron's soul/spirit into their creation as well, and hence why he would be able to remotely control them and their bearers in turn (which the elves quickly perceived).

Does this sound about right?

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    It seems very unlikely that the Three contained any of Sauron's essence. He had no direct role in their creation, although they were manufactured with the skills Sauron had taught Celebrimbor.
    – Buzz
    Oct 16, 2023 at 1:24
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    Reusing a block of someone else's code may be a pretty good analogy here. Sauron wanted to install a backdoor in each of the Rings of Power, which would let him take over their functions and control the wearer/workstation on which they were installed. For the Rings he worked on personally, he was able to insert code that gave him direct access. However, for the Three, which Celebrimbor created using some of Sauron's libraries, Sauron could only control their function when he was directly hooked into the Rings of Power network himself, running his own One Ring instance.
    – Buzz
    Oct 16, 2023 at 1:34
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    @Buzz Tolkien: The OG of IT security, before it was even a thing.
    – hamstar
    Oct 16, 2023 at 2:35
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    @hamstar My guess is that it probably isn't much like writing code.
    – Misha R
    Oct 16, 2023 at 12:53
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    @MishaR, Every analogy is, in some ways, "not much like" the idea that it is intended to illustrate; and yet, writers continue to employ them. Maybe it's because the good ones are, in some other ways, right on-target. Unfortunately, we never will know how close Buzz's analogy is to the "reality" that Tolkein had in mind unless we can bring Tolkein back from the dead, educate him in the mysteries of software engineering and computer security, and then ask his opinion. Oct 16, 2023 at 19:45

4 Answers 4

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The three Great Rings, as we know, were the work of Celebrimbor, who made use of Sauron's knowledge in making them, but did not allow Sauron access to his creations. Aside from the vulnerability created by Celebrimbor incorporating that knowledge into his work, the Three were never touched by Sauron and were "unsullied," as Tolkien puts it.

The sixteen lesser rings were made by elven smiths as exercises in the craft of making rings of power. Again, they had the vulnerability of the Three, and if Sauron had physical access to them during their making then they were sullied at that point, but failing that they had only the same vulnerability as the Three.

When Sauron donned the One Ring, uttered the incantation that we all know, he briefly gained power over everyone who wore the other rings. The Eldar stopped using them.

Sauron then demanded that the rings be surrendered to him, on the claim that without his counsel they could not have been made. He launched a war to achieve this objective, and was successful in capturing the lesser sixteen rings of power. The narrative reads that these lesser rings were "sullied" by his touch. In the legendarium this means that he put a small portion of his corrupt spirit into them.

So to answer the question, Sauron put his spirit into seventeen of the twenty rings of power; a little bit went into the Seven and the Nine, but the vast bulk went into the One.

We read that some of the Seven were destroyed by dragon fire; this must have harmed Sauron to a small degree, which probably motivated him to retrieve those of the Seven that survived, for safekeeping.

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Tolkien explicitly compares Sauron creating the Rings to Morgoth marring Arda

In an essay titled "Notes on motives in the Silmarillion", Tolkien discusses the nature of evil in his work, and the similarities and differences between Sauron and Morgoth.

Tolkien directly draws comparisons between Sauron making the Rings and Morgoth divesting himself.

Morgoth had let most of his being pass into the physical constituents of the Earth - hence all things that were born on Earth and lived on and by it, beasts or plants or incarnate spirits, were liable to be 'stained'. Morgoth at the time of the War of the Jewels had become permanently 'incarnate': for this reason he was afraid, and waged the war almost entirely by means of devices, or of subordinates and dominated creatures.
Sauron, however, inherited the 'corruption' of Arda, and only spent his (much more limited) power on the Rings; for it was the creatures of earth, in their minds and wills, that he desired to dominate.
"Notes on motives in the Silmarillion" (i) Morgoth's Ring, Myths Transformed VII

Melkor 'incarnated' himself (as Morgoth) permanently. He did this so as to control the hroa, the 'flesh' or physical matter, of Arda. He attempted to identify himself with it. A vaster, and more perilous, procedure, though of similar sort to the operations of Sauron with the Rings.
"Notes on motives in the Silmarillion" (ii) Morgoth's Ring, Myths Transformed VII

But in this way Morgoth lost (or exchanged, or transmuted) the greater part of his original 'angelic' powers, of mind and spirit, while gaining a terrible grip upon the physical world. For this reason he had to be fought, mainly by physical force, and enormous material ruin was a probable consequence of any direct combat with him, victorious or otherwise. This is the chief explanation of the constant reluctance of the Valar to come into open battle against Morgoth. Manwë's task and problem was much more difficult than Gandalf's. Sauron's, relatively smaller, power was concentrated; Morgoth's vast power was disseminated. The whole of 'Middle-earth' was Morgoth's Ring, though temporarily his attention was mainly upon the North-west.
"Notes on motives in the Silmarillion" (ii) Morgoth's Ring, Myths Transformed VII

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The Three Rings of the Elvenkind (Narya, Nenya, Vilya) had no part of Sauron in them. According to Gandalf:

The Three, fairest of all, the Elf-lords hid from him, and his hand never touched them or sullied them.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter 2, "The Shadow of the Past"

If they'd had a taint of Sauron, the Elves wouldn't have been able to use them safely when the One Ring was lost. (Unlike the Nine Rings of Men which were still under Sauron's control even without the One Ring in his possession.) Recall that the Elves were immediately aware of the One Ring when Sauron first put it on and they didn't wear the Three Rings until Isildur struck the One Ring from Sauron's hand.

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    Unsullied, but still unusable? I don't understand this concept.
    – hamstar
    Oct 16, 2023 at 1:54
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    @hamstar They were uncorrupted in themselves, but not strong enough to withstand Sauron when his will was channeled through the One Ring. And even then it doesn't mean that Sauron can directly claim the rings themselves (or he would have done so), just that Sauron has enough power to reach through to the rings' wearers.
    – DavidW
    Oct 16, 2023 at 2:02
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    Maybe they couldn't contend with the One Ring directly, but de-equipping them outright still indicates they were an active liability to the elves, and not simply inadequate. Does this have something to do with exposing their bearers to the "unseen world" akin to Frodo when he equips the One Ring when confronted by the wraiths? Can Sauron just march on up to them and in that state and face stab them with impunity or something?
    – hamstar
    Oct 16, 2023 at 2:29
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    The way I understood it, the one ring was created for domination. It did not matter if Sauron had a hand in the creation of the other rings or not, he was intimately familiar with their creation, purpose, materials, etc. He was able to focus his own substantial power through the One Ring to control the other rings (and at least strongly influence their wielders) Oct 16, 2023 at 17:36
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Sauron still had access to his full power, even with the Ring lost. He did lose the abilities and enhancements that were granted by the Ring (such as being able to control or effect the wearers of other rings). The primary danger to Sauron was that the Ring would be claimed by someone with enough innate power to dominate *1 the power within the Ring (such as Saruman, Gandalf, or perhaps Galadriel). Once that happened, the power within the Ring would be lost to him, as if the Ring had been destroyed. The danger of someone actually destroying the Ring was something that never occured to him.

*1 'Dominate', just as in able to fully use the power; not that they wouldn't ultimately be corrupted by it.

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