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About 3000 years passed between when the One Ring was lost in the Gladden river, and the events of The Lord of the Rings. By then, knowledge of the Ring is surprisingly obscure — it takes Gandalf 17 years(!) between Bilbo's retirement and his return to the Shire to research the nature of the ring and its method of identification.

I find it even more surprising that the Elves, some of whom fought in the Last Alliance or were even alive during the forging of the Rings, would somehow let the One Ring slip from their minds.

Given that the Ring featured prominently in a war so historically important that it defined the end of an Age, how could it have been forgotten after a mere 3000 years?

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  • 15
    "Mere" 3,000 years?
    – Joe L.
    Nov 21, 2014 at 20:34
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    How much do you know about wars 3,000 years ago?
    – Kevin
    Nov 21, 2014 at 20:35
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    If someone today, even a scholar equivalent to Gandalf, needed to learn whether a sword was Alexander the Great's sword or a helmet belonged to Rameses II, it could easily take them a few decades to track down enough evidence to be absolutely sure, and that's with the benefit of computers and air travel.
    – Nerrolken
    Nov 21, 2014 at 20:37
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    If Alexander's sword was the principal source of all of his power and the means by which his spirit might return today and dominate all of Europe, yes, I do think it would have a rather lengthy Wikipedia article.
    – user168715
    Nov 21, 2014 at 20:39
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    In Star Wars, the Force is pretty much forgotten in 20 years.
    – phantom42
    Nov 21, 2014 at 21:04

4 Answers 4

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Knowledge of the One Ring was certainly not obscure, at least among the Wise (a very vague term). Gandalf states that the famous "One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them" verse was "long known in Elven-lore" (Lord of the Rings, Book I, Chapter 2, "The Shadow of the Past"). Gandalf further says that Celebrimbor, who made the three Elven-rings without input from Sauron,

was aware of him, and from afar he heard him speak these words, and so his evil purposes were revealed.

It seems certain, then, that Elrond, Galadriel, Círdan, and obviously Gandalf (the four custodians of the three Elven-rings who were still alive in the Third Age) were aware of the existence of the One. Presumably, then, others—including the descendants of Elendil, and the Stewards of Gondor, and those dwarves who were aware of the Dwarven-rings—were also aware of the existence of the One. But it seems that not everyone, even of those who knew about the ring, was aware that it was still around. When Elrond speaks of Isildur cutting the One Ring off Sauron's finger, Boromir exclaims:

I have heard of the Great Ring of him that we do not name; but we believed that it perished from the world in the ruin of his first realm. Isildur took it! That is tidings indeed.

(Lord of the Rings, Book II, Chapter 2, "The Council of Elrond")

It is quite possible, though I don't believe it is stated anywhere, that this is the typical position among those who know of the Ring's existence.

Among those who did know that the Ring was not in fact destroyed, it does seem to have been common knowledge that it was lost in the disaster of the Gladden Fields; but nothing had been heard of it for a couple of thousand years, and they didn't seem to think that it was important—until Gandalf discovered in 2850 that Sauron was still in the world.

By that time, however, Saruman had already begun to be corrupted, and it was in his interest to convince everyone else that the Ring, though perhaps not destroyed, was at least inaccessible—as Gandalf reports:

'"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."'

(Lord of the Rings, Book II, Chapter 2, "The Council of Elrond")

Saruman was the leader of the Council of the Wise, and considered extremely trustworthy by pretty much everyone. That's why Gandalf has such a problem reconciling his ideas about Bilbo's ring, based on his interactions with Bilbo, with Saruman's assertions.

Then, too, Gandalf (who is the only one aware of Bilbo's ring) apparently has other things to do besides think about the Ring all the time. He does set a watch to see if Gollum emerges from the mountains to try and get the ring back, but doesn't follow up on it:

But at the western edge of Mirkwood the trail turned away. It wandered off southwards and passed out of the Wood-elves' ken, and was lost. And then I made a great mistake. Yes, Frodo, and not the first; though I fear it may prove the worst. I let the matter be. I let him go; for I had much else to think of at that time, and I still trusted the lore of Saruman.

(Lord of the Rings, Book I, Chapter 2, "The Shadow of the Past")

It took until Bilbo left for Rivendell in 3001 for Gandalf's suspicions about his ring to harden into near-certainty that it was the One Ring. Then, of course, he had two tasks: to find evidence to back up his certainty, and to figure out how and why Saruman's claim came to be wrong. Gandalf explains in "The Shadow of the Past", and clarifies in "The Council of Elrond", how he managed both of these.

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  • Vilya originally belonged to Gil-galad, who gave it to Elrond, his herald, in the last years of the Second Age during the War of the Last Alliance. So, your "four custodians" of the Three Rings is actually five :-) Jul 23, 2016 at 8:24
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    @maguirenumber6 Oops. Right you are. Thanks! Jul 23, 2016 at 13:11
  • There. That better? Jul 23, 2016 at 13:13
  • Indeed. Good edit sir. Jul 23, 2016 at 17:52
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I don't think it was obscure. The Wise certainly knew of the Ring: Elrond was even present when Isildur cut it from Sauron's hand. But they all believed it was lost forever, and Saruman encouraged that belief.

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I want to echo the excellent comments made in response to the original question pointing out how terribly, terribly long 3000 years is and how limited knowledge is when it relies on hand-copying from scroll to scroll for preservation. (And when the greatest archival library of Man in the citadel of Minas Tirith allows open flames in the scroll room. Can you say "Catches fire every hundred years or so and it's a miracle that anything that survived the mice and rats didn't burn millenia ago"?) In our world we had orders of monks in dozens of monasteries who devoted centuries to preserving ancient literature by recopying it and, still, many of our most important ancient works were recovered from a single forgotten Dark Ages copy.

Sure, there were immortals around Middle-earth who had long memories -- though by his own statements Gandalf's memory is decidedly imperfect -- but, still, keeping 3000-year-old memories fresh when you hit your early 8000s is hard even for elves. (I barely remember what I had for lunch last Thursday.)

Think WWII. Did FDR, Churchill and Marshall make war plans to deal with the possibility of the Nazis locating the Ark of the Covenant? Yet it was lost less than 3000 years ago, and possibly as recently as the late 300s AD. Had Indiana Jones not taken the Ark to Mt Doom, things might have turned out very differently. (Was Denethor really in a very different position vis-a-vis the Ring than FDR and the Ark? Sure he had heard about it, but did he really think it mattered today?)

The world is big, time is long, and even immortal elves are small.

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The White Council knew of it and about it. However they took the advice of their resident 'ring expert' on the matter of its current existence and potential for harm. Saruman was chief Maia of Aulë, having taken the job directly from Sauron after his defection to Melkor. He almost certainly could have made his own ruling ring if he were not constrained by Manwë's edict that the Istari could only use the magic and knowledge that was available to a man. It is actually mentioned that Saruman is seen by Gandalf wearing many rings shortly before he reveals his true — many — colours!

More importantly they allowed themselves to be lulled in to complacency — it was what they wanted to believe. Nonetheless, Gandalf certainly picked up on it as soon as he heard Bilbo mention feeling spread like too little butter over too much bread.

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