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I don't know how the story is in the book (I would like to know), but in the movie The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Thorin asks Bilbo why he came back, and Gandalf tries to evade the question after seeing Bilbo wearing an unusual ring and behaving oddly.

Shouldn't Gandalf have done more about it? Doesn't he know that the One Ring still exists?

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    Did Gandalf actually see Bilbo wearing the ring in the most recent two Hobbit films? I was under the impression Bilbo kept the ring hidden in his pocket.
    – RobertF
    Commented Dec 30, 2013 at 14:04

6 Answers 6

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Gandalf didn't know the ring was still around. He studied Bilbo's ring to try and learn its purpose for 14 years or so in the book and some time in the movie as well. It just took time to determine what it was.

Essentially, it took Gandalf a while to figure out what it was. During Bilbo's birthday party was the first sign he had that it was some kind of a ring of some power. He went through a fair bit of logic to figure out what it really was, first concluding it wasn't a dwarf, elf, or human ring. It looked like one of the lesser rings, but it had too much power for that. Finally, he concluded it was the One Ring.

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    All Gandalf knew at this point is that it's a magical ring of some sort. He does warn Bilbo in the book that some magical rings aren't safe, but that's all he does. It's not until much later that he suspects it's the One Ring and not until he throws it in the fire (almost 70 years later) that he's sure of it.
    – Plutor
    Commented Feb 2, 2013 at 20:38
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    Additionaly, Sauron's power much weaker in "The Hobbit" than it was 70 years later in the era of the "Lord of the Rings". Only after struggling with the growth of the "enemy" during this time frame did Gandalf really realize what power Bilbo's magic ring might have. As described in detail in the Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf only deeply researched about the ring following it's handoff to Frodo.
    – Chris
    Commented Feb 3, 2013 at 1:25
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    @DarthMelkor: But he did know it was a Ring of Power. He says in The Shadow of the Past: "I wondered often how Gollum came by a Great Ring, as plainly it was - that at least was clear from the first."
    – Crowman
    Commented Apr 5, 2015 at 14:24
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    @PaulGriffiths - that's a good point and reveals a potential problem in the text. If the 9/7/3 "had each their proper gem", but yet Bilbo's Ring hadn't, then Gandalf must have known from the outset that it was the One.
    – user8719
    Commented Apr 5, 2015 at 15:09
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    @einpoklum If it did occur to him, Gandalf might have been frightened by the possibility, and uncertain what he could do about it without risking falling under the ring's domination himself. Also, we have no idea how many "ordinary" magic rings that just make you invisible are floating around the setting. They aren't common, but they might be common enough that Bilbo's chance find was more likely to be one of them than one of the lost Great Rings of Power with the capital letters.
    – zwol
    Commented Aug 7, 2017 at 15:58
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To understand this you need to understand the order in which the stories were written and the order in which the various concepts in them came about.

First of all, Tolkien had always intended that the Necromancer be Sauron (who was, at the time, called Thû) when The Hobbit was first written; see the History of the Hobbit and, in particular, the comment that "Beren and Lúthien broke his power long ago" in an early draft: the Necromancer was always intended to be Sauron/Thû, and this intention predates LotR.

The concept of Sauron/Thû surviving beyond the First Age is also an old one, entering in the Lay of Leithian (c. 1928; pre-Hobbit), particularly with the lines:

Men called him Thû, and as a god
in after days beneath his rod
bewildered bowed to him, and made
his ghastly temples in the shade.

Around the same time as The Hobbit was being written, but before it was published (and before LotR was begun), the earliest concepts of the Second Age, the Fall of Númenor, and the Last Alliance had also entered; see HoME 5 and the first version of The Fall of Númenor:

the peoples of Beleriand destroyed his dwellings, and drove him forth, and he fled to a dark forest, and hid himself

And the second version (also pre-LotR):

...Mordor the Black Country, where Sauron, that is in the Gnomish tongue named Thû, had rebuilt his fortresses...

This establishes beyond doubt that the concept of the Necromancer-as-Sauron had been intended from the start, but what had not yet arisen was the concept of the Rings of Power.

And so in the first edition of The Hobbit, the Ring itself is not a particularly powerful or dangerous item. It's just a simple "ring of invisibility", not much more, and in fact Gollum had even wagered it as his side of the riddle contest (and had shown Bilbo the way out instead, with much apologies, after he couldn't find it - because Bilbo, of course, had it in his nasty little pocketses).

The concept of the Rings of Power only entered during the writing of LotR, and even then took some time to emerge; initially the Ring was described as "not very dangerous" (HoME 6) but gradually grew to become what we know today. Towards the end of the writing of LotR Tolkien also rewrote the "Riddles in the Dark" chapter of The Hobbit, and submitted it to his publishers as a sample of a possible reworking to fit the new concepts (see Letters and HotH). However, as a result of misunderstandings, this was actually published in a second edition of The Hobbit in 1951 (after LotR was finished, but before it was published).

From here, Tolkien decided to keep both versions of "Riddles" but recast the first edition version as the story that Bilbo had originally told Gandalf and the Dwarves; the second edition version was the true story that Bilbo had originally kept hidden but which Gandalf eventually got out of him; see "Shadow of the Past" (and also Letters):

Then I heard Bilbo's strange story of how he had "won" it, and I could not believe it. When I at last got the truth out of him, I saw at once that he had been trying to put his claim to the ring beyond doubt.

So the whole story is a mixture of out-of-universe intentions and accidents having an effect on in-universe occurrances. In summary:

  • Sauron/Thû/the Necromancer was always there from the beginning, and always intended to be the character he is.
  • The Rings weren't; they entered later.
  • The original concept of the Ring was as something quite benign.
  • When the concept changed the older story was changed to suit the new concept.
  • The older story was then retained as Bilbo's original false explanation.

In other words, and to put it more simply: "Bilbo lied".

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    Great depth of detail and TL;DR summary is exquisite. Commented Mar 17, 2014 at 12:30
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Yes, we already have an answer, but here's my two cents.

Gandalf has a mission - get rid of the dragon. He's got a bad feeling that something is coming down the pike, and by eliminating the dragon, the dwarves will rebuild, the men will help, and Sauron will lose a potential ally. (Okay, so the Gandalf/Sauron thing is shaky.)

And to accomplish this mission, he needs Bilbo. Whether it's 14 as a lucky number, the idea that a burglar would be more successful, or some other premonition, Gandalf as much as said if Bilbo doesn't go, he won't go. Finally both Bilbo and Thorin agree.

So now we come to a critical moment. The dwarves have escaped, but Bilbo is still missing. Is he still trapped in the mountain? Gandalf is berating the dwarves, while Thorin accuses Bilbo of running away. When suddenly - pop - and here's the burglar! Is Gandalf suspicious? Of course. Everyone is. But Gandalf realizes that here and now is not the time for such questions. They are on a mountainside, no food, water, camping materials, etc. The goblins/orcs/wargs are on their way. And, most importantly, drawing attention to Bilbo might encourage Thorin to kick him out again. Better to smooth things over, "What does it matter?". Get all 14, plus wizard, moving to the east. The mission comes first!

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    Even after that point, so long as he was uncertain about the nature of the ring, any action he could take might do more harm than good. Indeed, what could he have done other than what he did, except perhaps stolen it from Bilbo? And we know now just how that would have turned out! Commented Oct 28, 2015 at 21:55
  • The thing is is that this can only be said for the second+ editions. The original 'mission' was a story for his children.I suppose one could argue that there was the mission of destroying Pryftan/Smaug but for a different reason. It's an interesting consideration though; as @HarryJohnston points out it would have backfired and the fire wouldn't have been from a dragon!
    – Pryftan
    Commented Feb 16, 2020 at 17:55
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re: the film -- no idea, depends on what was in Peter Jackson's head when he wrote the scene.

re: the books -- the answer is a little trite, but Gandalf's reaction was the way it was because the One Ring (literally) didn't exist when Tolkien wrote The Hobbit. The One Ring came later, when Tolkien was asked to write a sequel, and he decided to make Bilbo's ring into something more; he had to retrofit it into The Hobbit and I suppose he didn't want to re-write the whole second half of the book (and honestly he didn't need to; it works the way he did it).

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    So, the whole story about the Maiars and stuff, was written after the hobbit?, and in which book can i find that?.
    – eLRuLL
    Commented Feb 3, 2013 at 17:34
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    Those stories would be found in the "Silmarillion", or in the "History of Middle Earth" books. I believe they were written circa WWI, many decades before the LotR was conceived of and written, and 15-20 years before "The Hobbit" was written. Commented Feb 4, 2013 at 19:16
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    @JoeCasadonte Yes. But there were several versions of The Silmarillion; he only didn't finish the last version - the posthumous published version. HoME was Christopher's doing also (and many other works). And you're right - he started writing decades earlier. In the first edition of The Hobbit Gollum truly intends to give Bilbo the Ring but Bilbo had already found it; Gollum apologises profusely but Bilbo says he doesn't mind as long as Gollum helps him out of the cave. It's a bit more elaborate but that shows that indeed the Ring wasn't sinister then; it wasn't meant to have a sequel.
    – Pryftan
    Commented Jan 16, 2018 at 1:42
  • @JoeCasadonte If that doesn't give you a clue: he did rewrite part of The Hobbit: he had to when he realised Gollum couldn't have given it up if he wanted to: it had defeated him.
    – Pryftan
    Commented Jan 16, 2018 at 1:43
  • Yes, I knew that. But the changes were minimized to just a few edits, from what I understand (I've never read the original version, or if I did it was many, many years ago). There was no need to re-write the entire second half of The Hobbit to show Gandalf being curious about the ring, because the story worked with the limited re-writes, where Gandalf only becomes suspicious many years later. I think that if the stories were conceived of and written together, as a cohesive whole, it would have been much different. Commented Jan 16, 2018 at 1:53
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There are three main reasons Gandalf wasn't immediately alarmed:

First, there were many rings of power besides the 3/7/9+1, so while Gandalf knew that Bilbo had a ring of power, he did not know it was The Ring.

'In Eregion long ago many Elven-rings were made, magic rings as you call them, and they were, of course, of various kinds: some more potent and some less. The lesser rings were only essays in the craft before it was full-grown, and to the Elven-smiths they were but trifles - yet still to my mind dangerous for mortals. But the Great Rings, the Rings of Power, they were perilous.

...'How long have you known all this?' asked Frodo again.

'Known?' said Gandalf. 'I have known much that only the Wise know, Frodo. But if you mean "known about this ring", well, I still do not know, one might say. There is a last test to make. But I no longer doubt my guess.

'When did I first begin to guess?' he mused, searching back in memory. 'Let me see - it was in the year that the White Council drove the dark power from Mirkwood, just before the Battle of Five Armies, that Bilbo found his ring. A shadow fell on my heart then, though I did not know yet what I feared. I wondered often how Gollum came by a Great Ring, as plainly it was - that at least was clear from the first.

...Still I watched and I waited.

'And all seemed well with Bilbo. And the years passed. Yes, they passed, and they seemed not to touch him. He showed no signs of age. The shadow fell on me again. But I said to myself: "After all he comes of a long-lived family on his mother's side. There is time yet. Wait!"

'And I waited. Until that night when he left this house. He said and did things then that filled me with a fear that no words of Saruman could allay. I knew at last that something dark and deadly was at work. And I have spent most of the years since then in finding out the truth of it.'

Second, Saruman -- the Wise's expert on Rings -- said, "Not to worry!"

The lore of the Elven-rings, great and small, is his province. He has long studied it, seeking the lost secrets of their making; but when the Rings were debated in the Council, all that he would reveal to us of his ring-lore told against my fears.

and later,

But Saruman said nay, and repeated what he had said to us before: that the One would never again be found in Middle-earth.

' "At the worst," said he, "our Enemy knows that we have it not and that it still is lost. But what was lost may yet be found, he thinks. Fear not! His hope will cheat him. Have I not earnestly studied this matter? Into Anduin the Great it fell; and long ago, while Sauron slept, it was rolled down the River to the Sea. There let it lie until the End."'

Thirdly, the One Ring disappeared from all knowledge in the Year 2 of the Third Age. Bilbo acquired his ring in the Year 2941. In our history, that would be like if Bilbo found a ring in the Alps last Tuesday. How quickly would you connect that with the ring that Achilles had taken from Priam during the sack of Troy, but which he lost on his way back to Greece? Three thousand years is a long time even for Gandalf!

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  • +1 for the third reason alone. Let's not forget that the Istari are incarnated in the bodies of old men and fully subject to its weaknesses like the fading of memories.
    – Annatar
    Commented Oct 11, 2021 at 7:31
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Here is my 2 cents if anyone else is wondering about this topic.

I find it very hard to believe or maybe just improbable that Gandalf didn't know Bilbo would find the ring. The best possible thing a burglar could be is invisible. He clearly says he is going to aid them by being a burger and small and unseen.

Also he finds something that becomes more pivotal to the storyline than any other object. Its what the lion share of the FULL story is about. He also covers for Bilbo because he knows that was the primary objective. No one needed to know anything about it, for fear of it being taken from Bilbo in the years to come. Before he would be able to take Frodo on his epic quest to destroy the ring.

He makes a good hiding spot for the ring but.If anyone would have known what it truly was, a hobbit would be an easy target.

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