Why is non-optional invisibility the one active supernatural power granted to non-Sauron wearers of the One Ring?

I'm looking for an answer explaining authorial intent, not an in-universe answer. Normally I wouldn't consider such a question answerable but considering the astounding level of Tolkien scholarship I hope it's reasonable.

Some question context is needed and there's no eloquent way to word this. If your exposure to LOTR is the recent movies, the thought may cross your mind:

Wait, what? Did Frodo just put on the ring of ultimate power to... run away!?

With the context and baggage of modern fiction tropes in our minds, this feels weird. In a movie made today we would probably expect a super powerful doomsday ring to grant something along the lines of Superman- or Jedi-style powers at the cost of evil insanity. Invisibility is usually not a power that modern fiction associates with either the upper tiers of power or with villainy.

All of the aspects of the One Ring being evil, corrupting, only loyal and intended only for its creator, and that its true power is control of others do fit in the current ecosystem of fiction. Very specifically, what feels weird is that the one active supernatural power is non-optional invisibility.

I'm not trying to make any judgments, or saying that all modern fiction is or should be identical. I just think these are reasonable, if brief, characterizations.

All of that said, the One Ring breaks with a (modern) audience's expectations. Is this intentional? Would this have felt weird to the original readers? If so, is there a known rationale?

I haven't read any of the books so try to bear with that in your answers.

  • 3
    @Richard - the OP is looking for an out-of-universe answer here.
    – user8719
    Commented Jan 23, 2015 at 11:16
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    “Invisibility is usually not a power that modern fiction associates with either the upper tiers of power or with villainy.” — You haven’t seen Hollow Man? Commented Jan 23, 2015 at 16:28
  • 13
    You might have jumped the gun a bit on accepting an answer. Ring of Gyges from Plato grants invisibility to a commoner (2400ish years ago), Helm of Darkness to Perseus to hide so he can either kill Medusa or escape afterwords, a half-dozen or so capes of invisibility spread across many societies long before Harry Potter, Shakespeare uses invisibility for mischief and torment in The Tempest, lots of fairy tales, and more. Rings that don't make you a superman were the norm, and invisibility and stealth were common in fiction of the past!
    – BrianH
    Commented Jan 23, 2015 at 17:45
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    Because the power of super-ventriloquism would be ridiculous.
    – A E
    Commented Jan 24, 2015 at 22:43
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    In the case of the ring, invisibility wasn't a power it "granted." It was a symptom of the ring's power over the wearer. It was useful to the hobbits in certain situation, that's all.
    – Misha R
    Commented Jan 26, 2015 at 9:21

9 Answers 9


Tolkien had not decided on the significance of the ring that Bilbo found when he wrote the Hobbit. Indeed in the first edition of the book Gollum wagers the ring as his stake in the game against Bilbo.

So the out-of-universe reason for why the ring of power grants invisibility is that when it was found it solved the need for the protagonist to get the power to turn invisible. This happened at an out-of-universe time when there was no need for the ring to be the master ring.

  • 2
    First edition, or draft?
    – user16696
    Commented Jan 23, 2015 at 17:33
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    @NickMoore that seems like a hell of a retcon...
    – user16696
    Commented Jan 23, 2015 at 22:06
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    This seems fishy. When Tolkien originally wrote The Hobbit, he didn't intend the Ring to have any particular significance. He chose to make this heretofore-unremarkable invisibility ring into The One Ring while writing the trilogy later. The device of invisibility was not forced on him by previous poor decisions, but rather, he found it to be an appropriate property in the new mythology. The question remains why.
    – Ryan Reich
    Commented Jan 24, 2015 at 6:12
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    You know, I remember disagreeing a lot more when I wrote the comment. I do think, though, that you have answered the question "why did Gollum's ring confer invisibility" and not "why does Sauron's ring confer invisibility?". That is, why Tolkien thought it appropriate to upgrade the former to the latter.
    – Ryan Reich
    Commented Jan 26, 2015 at 8:19
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    @cde: It is a heck of retcon in many ways; Tolkien for instance very carefully wrote the retcon so that as little as possible of the 2nd edition would have to be typeset again. Obviously books were not typeset automatically by computers back then and typesetting by hand was expensive. See Rateliff's book for more details. Commented Jan 26, 2015 at 17:07

There actually is an in-universe answer. This answer to why Sauron doesn't become 'invisible' himself gives it to us.

The Ring made its wearer invisible by shifting them mostly into the Unseen world. Gandalf told Frodo:

You were in gravest peril while you wore the Ring, for then you were half in the wraith-world yourself.

The ring doesn't just make the wearer invisible - it brings them halfway into the world of wraiths and spirits.

This answer also explains why Sauron is not affected in the same way.

But Sauron already lived in that world as a Maia - his body was something deliberately constructed. Sauron was naturally pure spirit, not a hybrid like mortals or Elves and Dwarves. Since his presence in the mortal world was in effect a construct of his own, not him himself, it was not shifted into the Unseen world.

Emphasis mine. Anyone wearing the ring would be shifted half into another world, making them invisible to all but those who already exist half in that world.

  • 64
    This still provides good context. The invisibility is not a feature, it's a bug.
    – user16696
    Commented Jan 23, 2015 at 17:38
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    @cde - the invisibility is not a bug, it's a feature. :-) Commented Jan 23, 2015 at 19:22
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    This is an explanation for the retcon though (and a good one at that). There's no reason shifting to the Unseen world must make one invisible or that you wouldn't also get additional powers. Commented Jan 24, 2015 at 3:10
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    @Praxeolitic That can be explained by the user of said ring not having mastery over it - our two ring-bearers, Bilbo and Sam, never once tried to take personal mastery over it to use it for all the powers it did have. There may have, and probably were, far far more functions to it, but they never used it for that.
    – Zibbobz
    Commented Jan 24, 2015 at 12:04
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    @BobJarvis Oh, a fellow programmer, I see :)
    – algiogia
    Commented Jan 26, 2015 at 15:02

At the time that the Hobbit was written, the concept of the Rings of Power and their link to Sauron didn't exist in Tolkien's writings (although Sauron did exist and Tolkien had always intended him to be the Necromancer).

The primary purpose of Bilbo's ring is to function as what Professor Tom Shippey (in The Road to Middle-earth) calls "an equalizer"; in other words, while Bilbo starts off as a rather poor Burglar ("He looks more like a grocer than a burglar!" - Glóin), through his possession and use of a ring of invisibility his status in the company is enhanced, until by the time they reach the Mountain he is almost in the position where he's the one in charge of things:

Already they had come to respect little Bilbo. Now he had become the real leader in their adventure. He had begun to have ideas and plans of his own. (The Hobbit Chapter 12: Inside Information)

The device of the ring therefore functions as part of Bilbo's growth in the story, from a stay-at-home typical Hobbit all the way through to a valued and contributing member of the company, and serves to help him overcome his limitations and show his real courage and resourcefulness (particularly at a time - in Erebor - when the Dwarves are showing none).

That, IMO, is the real "There and Back Again" of the story: not a physical journey, but a journey of personal development; from Bilbo's beginnings:

...people considered them very respectable, not only because most of them were rich, but also because they never had any adventures or did anything unexpected...

And back to where he ends:

You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!

  • 2
    "although Sauron did exist and Tolkien had always intended him to be the Necromancer" - I'd be interested in reading more about that. Do you have a citation? Commented Jan 24, 2015 at 3:36
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    @DavidFaber - already answered here: scifi.stackexchange.com/a/47768/8719
    – user8719
    Commented Jan 24, 2015 at 4:06
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    That shows he intended it at one time. .. he might have thought better of it when editing The Hobbit, only to return to the idea later. But thanks for the citations. Commented Jan 24, 2015 at 4:14
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    @DavidFaber - that's correct, but if so the "later" would have been quite early; see Letter 19 ("even Sauron the terrible peeped over the edge") for evidence, and crucially this letter was written before Tolkien began writing Lord of the Rings (the rest of the letter provides context that establishes that he had no intention of writing LotR at that time).
    – user8719
    Commented Jan 24, 2015 at 18:42

The out-of-universe answer is that Tolkien took the idea of the ring from other works.

The original story of the ring is from a dialogue of Plato, and was called the ring of Gyges.

Gyges was a shepherd, and a good man, until he found a magic ring that could turn him invisible. Realizing he could get away with any crime, he went on a crime spree. This was part of Plato's argument that society should be governed by philosophers and democracy was bad, because ordinary people, even with good intentions, would be corrupted by power. (Sound familiar?)

The second source was the Ring of the Nibelung from the 4-opera ring cycle by Wagner. Tolkien himself explicitly denied using any ideas from Wagner, but, well... he's lying. The similarities are overwhelming. Here's the relevant section about it on the wikipedia page about the Wagner opera: Der Ring des Nibelungen Wikipeia).

J. R. R. Tolkien's fantasy novels The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1954) share elements with Der Ring des Nibelungen, but Tolkien himself denied that he had been inspired by Wagner's work, saying that "Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases."[23] In spite of Tolkien's protestation, there are various similarities in addition to annularity: a ring of power which curses its bearer; a powerful wanderer in a large hat carrying a spear (Wotan) or staff (Gandalf the Grey); magical invisibility; the reforging of a powerful sword; a riddle contest; Sméagol's murder of his cousin Deagol for possession of the ring and Fafner's murder of his brother Fasolt for the same reason; the slaying of a powerful gold-hoarding dragon; to name but a few.[24][25] Tolkien may have drawn, albeit partially, upon common source material, including the Völsunga saga and the Poetic Edda. The crucial element of the storyline, that the ring is evil, and will work of itself to the undoing of its possessor, is common to both, as is the lust for world domination connected with its power, and that the ring has been stolen (Wagner) or captured (Tolkien) from its rightful owner(s).

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    It should be noted that this "relevant section" doesn't cite any sources other than the Hobbit and the LotR itself; the operational phrase here is "original research". ;-)
    – DevSolar
    Commented Jan 26, 2015 at 12:32
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    I believe Tolkien claimed to be inspired by Norse mythology, the same source of inspiration of the Ring Cycle by Wagner. So, it's reasonable that he had not even heard of the Ring Cycle, yet the stories do have a lot in common.
    – John
    Commented Jan 26, 2015 at 23:43
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    If you generalize enough, you can make almost any stories sound alike. That "crucial element" of the lust for power being one's own undoing? That's called tragedy.
    – KSmarts
    Commented Mar 10, 2015 at 13:58
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    @KSmarts It's true that with enough generalization almost any two stories are the same. But in this case, I think eggcrook and Wikipedia are right. There are enough coincidences to think at the very least Tolkien drew from the same sources as the Ring of the Nibelung. It's not so surprising, since that was the kind of lore that Tolkien loved. I tend not to believe the Professor too much about some of his claims (sources of inspiration and his dislike of allegories, for example). Chalk it up to his authorial blind spot :)
    – Andres F.
    Commented Mar 11, 2015 at 12:15

My understanding of the the One Ring was: it grants ultimate power in the form that best suits the wearer. Bilbo and Frodo were thieves (or rogues), so being invisible is exactly what they need.

However, the more powerful the individual is, the more power the ring grants. So if Sauron were to put on the ring, then all hell would break loose.

  • 2
    Also, this is why Gandalf refused to carry the ring. The more powerful the person, the more power, the more corrupt. Commented Jan 23, 2015 at 17:25
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    This is speculation though. We never see anyone wear it other than Frodo. And while Gandalf says he would become powerful and terrible if he wore it, he is also a Maia, and therefore would be different entirely in how he was affected.
    – Zibbobz
    Commented Jan 23, 2015 at 17:38
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    I thought it was less that Bilbo was a theif, and more that he was a hobbit and hobbits are naturally very good at hiding (explictly stated at start of one of the books.). So it is enhancing hobbits natural form not the occupations skill set. Commented Jan 24, 2015 at 12:59
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    Isildur is not a hobbit, nor any kind of thief, and he also turns invisible when he wears the Ring. This is implicit in The Lord of the Rings (Gandalf says "He leaped into the waters, but the Ring slipped from his fingers and then the Orcs saw him and killed him with arrows.") and made more explicit in The Silmarillion ("Isildur himself escaped by means of the Ring, for when he wore it he was invisible to all eyes; but the Orcs hunted him by scent...")
    – Micah
    Commented Jan 25, 2015 at 23:22
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    Bilbo was hired as a burglar. Frodo was never identified as a thief or rogue. What he needed most was a teleportation spell. Isildur needed arrow deflection and got invisibility. Tom Bombadil didn't need anything... and he got it. Maybe you're onto something. Commented Jan 27, 2015 at 11:09

I believe that at one point Gandalf (unsure of who actually said this) mentioned that as Bilbo/Frodo are not powerful creatures possessing immense willpower and strength, they can only use the ring to achieve a minor feat, turn invisible. Sauron on the other hand is extremely powerful in comparison to B/F. Using his Willpower/strength/etc. he can use the ring to achieve many more feats, also note the fact he is the rings master so he can control it better than anyone. So in short the ring is capable of producing variety of effects (not many are detailed) based on its users mental capacity. So Frodo/Bilbo being relatively weak creatures cannot control the ring as well as a powerful being (Gandalf, Galadriel, Sauron) could. IMO any who. anyone agree?

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    A reference would be really good! Commented Jan 25, 2015 at 3:33

A simple, out-of-universe answer: Both times, when first putting on the One Ring, the wearers (Bilbo & Frodo) wanted to disappear or hide. So that's what the ring did. When they later put on the ring, they did so in order to disappear or hide, so it made them invisible again. It is a ring of great power, but it is still a ring, and it's actions are directed by the wearer, even if unconsciously.


"ONE RING TO RULE THEM ALL". The ring IS, whatever it's wearer needs it to be. For Bilbo and Frodo they were sent to the spirit world, that of course made them invisible, but it also showed them the future and what could become of it. Making Frodos courage rise, and for Bilbo it turns him the opposite more withdrawn. Like said previously, it holds THE most power of all of the rings, even the Elf Queen was tempted as well as Gandalf, This is the one reason that Frodo is chosen to take the ring to be destroyed,his kind spirt and strong will keep him from succumbing to its evil power.

  • When did it show them the future? Also surely Frodo didn't want to enter the spirit world when the witch king was attacking them as that would single him out and make it easy to kill him..?
    – Edlothiad
    Commented Mar 20, 2017 at 16:43
  • Frodo only used the ring when it was nessesary, especially after he was stabbed by the Witch King. Unlike Bilbo who used it more often and never seemed to be so sickened by its power ,you can assume that this is one of the reasons Frodo was chosen to destroy the ring. Commented Mar 25, 2017 at 6:59

I have a more intuitive answer. I have not read all of Tolkien's books but I certainly saw the movies and loved the story. Since I have a long term fascination for exorcism,demonology and theology as well as being into modern science and tech, I think I can give an educated guess of a very good kind.

The primary purpose of any evil objekt is evil and propagation of that quality everywhere. In this regard, take a look at demonic possessions and why evil in its very nature tries to hide itself. Discovery is death for Satan and his minions. Tolkien did understand a thing or two about the nature of evil. If you look at this description of Gollum, and how he degenerates into something horrific over centuries is an analogy and a symbolic reference to evil and it's psychology and constituent. Evil IS ancient. Evil was originally simple, but corrupted by jealousy. I feel pride is stupid, but jealousy was the main reason why his spiritual corruption took an onset. Over time, without the healing element of love and filled with disgust for self-defeat and hurt by being rejected, the corruption became one and whole, with no space for anything holy. It became a distant shadow or its long lost glory and then some.

It understands what is holy and what is good but it itself has lost the ability to transmute itself back.

Now invisibility is important in order to successfully do evil. Human evil is I believe a large part indebted to Satan and his demon army, instigating and acting as a catalyst to our innate bi-natured selves. Remember this is an ancient force we are dealing with.

Tolkien I believe also wanted to also give the analogy of evil being seductive at first with stealth being an inbuilt feature. This also lets anyone who is willing to wear the ring, get an immediate result that entices him to be part of the bad crowd. Remember anything worthy of being good required healthy amount of dedication and work to get at it. Evil tried to make things look easy for quick recruitment so that the benefits seem obvious. It is a ruse.

Without stealth no other feature would survive, so this has to be implicit. For instance, if you make a computer virus with very overt signs with a full blown application saying that "this is a computer virus-will destroy your computer" with a GUI dialog (and is not a joke application), I am sure only the mentally retarded would enable the whole application and execute it purposefully. Rootkits especially make use of memory address overwriting of essential system function address tables to intercept function calls and do their bidding without the user knowing about the presence.

God (or Good) has many faces (quite overt and visible), Evil has no known face as such -just different appearances. The difference is huge. A set of masks do not portray anything but deception. Which is also one of the primary methods of how evil functions. Seeing the Devil can scar you for life as the damage is spiritual and needs solid support of the good energy if you have to survive the attack. Judging from accounts of priests and Christian writers worldwide, and in my own experience with demons (not as victim :)) as well - evil cannot enter into a potential host in a normal way. It has to prepare a ruse developed with careful study and deploy selected personnel assigned to that particular target person or thing. Thus, building confusion and deception as well as tried and tested methods like "the broken record technique", scare tactics etc. are just the means to an end. The main objective of evil , mankind's destruction in mind, body and spirit of every individual. It is our primary enemy.

Evil also has a tendency to trap victims by debating for them of the side they should take by taking advantage of hurt feelings or potentially recoverable situations and turning gold to lead. However, when the time comes, evil will rebuke you for being such a fool and believing it (no gender here) and not surprisingly will try to break you by holding you accountable for being so gullible. It takes immense pleasure in deceiving its victims. Explicit appearances and scare tactics are only required when the usual stealthy mode of combat does not work good enough and more deterrence is necessary. This also means that the evil enemy has failed its initial and primary attempt. To expose itself and make itself known is the last thing evil wants.

The alternate dimension where the wearer of the ring displaces to, is quite similar to the preternatural realm of the demonic kingdom. Where right at the 4D (time and space) - Cartesian co-ordinate of your current location, another dimension parallel to it exists like a second plane of energy band in atoms. It is visible only when certain criteria is fulfilled, just like electrons leave or enter a specific energy band in an atom around the nucleus. According to recorded and interpreted interviews of demons in possessed victims, they say that the number of demons banished to earth is so large that if they took physical form they will cover the sun and earth would be starved of its light.

In terms of computer architecture, the concept of privilege rings look quite resolute. The kernel or core of the system wants to protect itself from external application based communication parameters so that it can run as smoothly as possible. This abstraction runs in a protected mode supported by the microprocessor, where in user mode or regular application processes do not interfere with the core functionality of the operating system. However, kernel mode communication can be availed of and made use of with the special programming interfaces (APIs) and toolkits, like device driver programming.Computer exploits and hacks done by malware and malicious code, exposes this kind of devious thinking wherein a feature loophole or a substandard design can be taken advantage of and used to infect the machine, inspite of existing guards in place. Thus security is a full time job, which requires just one hit to prove that it needs to be better. The evil side requires just one hit to do the real damage and run away after that. Less to lose more to gain. For the good side, its everything to lose and everything to gain by not being careful and by being careful.

You could also read books by MD Scott Peck and Eric Fromm to understand about the evil psychology. Crimimal science books also do a good amount of description and demonic possession and exorcism as subjects are like drinking from the fountain itself. Further, computer security is also very related as it is people who are developing this stuff and it is a by product of human intelligence.

I believe, Tolkien portrayed evil in very good light with solid symbolic significance.

  • 3
    This answer is completely subjective, and makes excessive reference to things that are virtually irrelevant to the question.
    – Zibbobz
    Commented Jan 27, 2015 at 16:32
  • It may be subjective, but there's a lot of thought put into the actual symbolism and appropriate cultural references - and what was asked was "I'm looking for an answer explaining authorial intent, not an in-universe answer."
    – Sindi
    Commented Jan 27, 2015 at 23:47
  • 1
    I was following along until you hit the computer architecture analogies. lol. Ummm, what? Oh and yes, I'm a software architect.. so it's not the lack of tech understanding Commented Mar 11, 2015 at 11:07

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