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Gollum managed to keep the One Ring safe in his possession for approximately 478 years. His cave is very well hidden, the goblins living nearby appear to be unaware of it and aside from Bilbo's visit there doesn't seem to have been any threat to him continuing to hold onto it indefinitely.

Did Tolkien highlight what would have happened if Bilbo hadn't recovered the Ring (or if Gollum had somehow died in his cave)? Would the Master Ring have simply remained undetected for the foreseeable future?

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    Supplementary question (for extra points): Since Sauron's primary motivation for The War of the Ring was his search for the One Ring, if it hadn't been acquired by Bilbo would the Lord of the Ring novels have been very boring? – Valorum Dec 1 '14 at 16:21
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    Related, not duplicate - scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/28223/… – Valorum Dec 1 '14 at 16:23
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    @Himarm - He'd been down there for 600 years and no Goblin had found his cave. Is there any reason to think that would change in another 600 (or 6000) years? – Valorum Dec 1 '14 at 17:53
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    I thought that in the hobbit he mentions the goblins knew about his cave but never ventured that deep because they also knew something lived down their and made them disappear. And because of that, Gollum had to travel farther and farther out of his cave to find food, which is why he was out far enough for him to lose the ring where Bilbo could find it (or a goblin). – Himarm Dec 1 '14 at 17:55
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    @Richard - "it is not our part here to take thought only for a season, or for a few lives of Men, or for a passing age of the world." Gandalf was certainly thinking in terms of thousands of years. And there's nothing to say that goblins hadn't found his cave; they were just too scared to go down that way. They might lose their fear if they found there was nothing to be afraid of. – Matt Gutting Dec 1 '14 at 19:19
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The Ring was actively trying to get back to its true master, Sauron. It had abandoned Gollum in hope of being picked up by someone more likely to get it back to Sauron, probably a Goblin or Orc.

LOTR, Book I, Ch. 2 The Shadow of the Past:

‘A Ring of Power looks after itself, Frodo.It may slip off treacherously, but its keeper never abandons it. At most he plays with the idea of handing it on to someone else’s care – and that only at an early stage, when it first begins to grip. But as far as I know Bilbo alone in history has ever gone beyond playing, and really done it. He needed all my help, too. And even so he would never have just forsaken it, or cast it aside. It was not Gollum, Frodo, but the Ring itself that decided things. The Ring left him.’

‘What, just in time to meet Bilbo?’ said Frodo. ‘Wouldn’t an Orc have suited it better?’

‘It is no laughing matter,’ said Gandalf. ‘Not for you. It was the strangest event in the whole history of the Ring so far: Bilbo’s arrival just at that time, and putting his hand on it, blindly, in the dark.

‘There was more than one power at work, Frodo. The Ring was trying to get back to its master. It had slipped from Isildur’s hand and betrayed him; then when a chance came it caught poor Déagol, and he was murdered; and after that Gollum, and it had devoured him. It could make no further use of him: he was too small and mean; and as long as it stayed with him he would never leave his deep pool again. So now, when its master was awake once more and sending out his dark thought from Mirkwood, it abandoned Gollum. Only to be picked up by the most unlikely person imaginable: Bilbo from the Shire!

‘Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought.’

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    +1 to this; the important point here is that the Ring actually had no intention of being found by Bilbo - being found by Bilbo was an accident; the Ring had escaped Gollum in order to be found but "It was the strangest event in the whole history of the Ring so far: Bilbo's arrival just at that time, and putting his hand on it, blindly, in the dark". – user8719 Dec 1 '14 at 16:51
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    @Richard: "Abandoned" simply means it slipped off of Gollum's finger in a place of it's choosing - a well-travelled corridor, for example. AFAIK, Tolkien never said that the Ring could move on it's own, but it's pretty clear that it can influence living beings near to it. It's just speculation on my part, but a lot of birds and animals are naturally attracted to shiney things. That would give the Ring an easy way to get itself moved around. – Joe L. Dec 1 '14 at 16:57
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    @Richard Consider what happened to the Ring after Isildur died. There was no way of predicting that it would have been picked up by someone else; but it was, after 2400-odd years. The same sort of thing would no doubt have happened if Gollum had died underground. – Matt Gutting Dec 1 '14 at 17:39
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    "Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker." I think that this last passage is extremely important as well since it hints that Eru Ilúvatar had directly intervened with Bilbo finding the Ring. – ssell Dec 1 '14 at 21:00
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    @ssell It's more than just important. It is the answer here. What Gandalf is saying is that it could not have been any other way, that a force ensured it would be that way. – jpmc26 Dec 1 '14 at 22:48
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The One Ring had the power of turning its possessor into (in effect) a wraith, or at any rate some sort of non-physical being under the complete and direct control of Sauron:

A mortal, Frodo, who keeps one of the Great Rings, does not die, but he does not grow or obtain more life, he merely continues, until at last every minute is a weariness. And if he often uses the Ring to make himself invisible, he fades: he becomes in the end invisible permanently, and walks in the twilight under the eye of the dark power that rules the Rings. Yes, sooner or later—later, if he is strong or well-meaning to begin with, but neither strength nor good purpose will last—sooner or later the dark power will devour him.

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

This had not happened yet to Gollum primarily because (being in the dark all the time) he didn't have a strong need to use the Ring to become invisible; but it appears from what Gandalf says that it would inevitably have affected him in this way. He would not have died per se, but he would have been consumed by the power of Sauron. Hobbits are unusually resistant to the effects of the ring, but not entirely resistant.

Eventually, then, Gollum would have been entirely overcome by the Ring—this may have taken hundreds more years, but would undoubtedly have happened had Gollum not lost the ring. When it happened, Gollum, being entirely under the control of Sauron, would have brought the ring to him.

Given that Gollum lost the Ring, however, what would happen?

There were in fact goblins who went down to Gollum's lake:

[Gollum] just throttled [goblins] from behind, if they ever came down alone anywhere near the edge of the water, while he was prowling about. They very seldom did, for they had a feeling that something unpleasant was lurking down there, down at the very roots of the mountain. They had come on the lake, when they were tunnelling down long ago, and they found they could go no further; so there their road ended in that direction, and there was no reason to go that way—unless the Great Goblin sent them. Sometimes he took a fancy for fish from the lake, and sometimes neither goblin nor fish came back.

(The Hobbit, Chapter 5, "Riddles In The Dark")

Thus it's entirely possible—even probable, given the Ring's activity—that eventually, one of them would have come upon the ring. At that point, since goblins appear to be effectively under the control of Sauron already, the Ring would make its way to Sauron relatively quickly.

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    I like this answer a lot. – Valorum Dec 1 '14 at 20:51
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Somewhere in the beginning of The Fellowship of The Ring, Gandalf explains to Frodo that he searched for Gollum but the Orcs found him first, they tortured him until he said "Shire. Baggins",leading the Nazgul to the Shire. So if Bilbo didn't take the Ring it would have been taken by the enemy.

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    But how would the Orcs have found Gollum, safe in his cave? – Valorum Dec 1 '14 at 17:51
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    When he lost the Ring he wandered into Mordor. forum.barrowdowns.com/archive/index.php?t-3255.html – Jess Dec 1 '14 at 17:59
  • That's a pretty good point. Would he have left his cave though, if he wasn't certain that Bilbo had taken the Ring? – Valorum Dec 1 '14 at 17:59
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    But this question is about what if Bilbo had not got the ring from Gollum at all. – Dronz Dec 1 '14 at 18:09
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    @Jess - I like this answer. You need to flesh it out a little. – Valorum Dec 1 '14 at 20:51
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Gollum was once of Hobbit of the shire, he then found this ring at the bottom of a pond and ever since its been poisoning his mind. He then proceeded to the mountains where he would posses the ring for over 600 years. His cave is well hidden from the goblins and no ones been down there except Bilbo. Lets jut put it this way, if Bilbo never found the ring it probably would have stayed in the caves for hundreds of more years.

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