In The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, we see in Bilbo and Frodo and, to a more extreme extent, Gollum, all bearers of the one ring, that they become extremely possessive of the ring and do their best to maintain ownership of the ring.

This seems contrary to what you would think of a ring that is trying to get back to its master; if the current possessor of the ring wants to keep a hold of it, surely that's going to hinder the ability of it to return to Sauron!

My question is, then, considering the ring wants to return to its master, why do current possessors of the ring feel such a strong desire to keep it?

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    I think the Ring would say that it prefers being kept by someone, because if you throw it in the trash, it might spend another thousand years away from its master. If you keep it, it is more likely that it, and you, will be found. This appears to be a good assumption, because when the Ring was in a river bed, it was lost for centuries, but once Bilbo found it, Sauron became aware of its discovery within a few decades at most. – Wad Cheber Jul 14 '15 at 5:37
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    @WadCheber Your logic seems flawed because Gollum found it and kept it secret for 500 years or so. Even after Bilbo found it there was a gap of nearly 80 years before the Ringwraiths were sent out, and that as a result of information learned from Gollum rather than the Ring's influence. – TheMathemagician Jul 14 '15 at 12:14
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    @TheMathemagician: sure, but what’s the better alternative? Just staying in the riverbed? – Paul D. Waite Jul 14 '15 at 14:43
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    @TheMathemagician At that point Sauron was weak. Also, Gollum was under a mountain. – Wad Cheber Jul 14 '15 at 16:10
up vote 30 down vote accepted
+50

The Ring is a Ring of power, and it increases the desire for power in those who wear it; this effect is amplified in direct proportion to the wearer's innate desire for power. This effect is a reflection of Sauron's own personality.

A Brief Biography of Sauron:

Sauron wasn't always evil. He began his life as a Maia, essentially an angel, and of the same class as Gandalf and the other wizards. He was eventually corrupted by Morgoth, and became his most powerful lieutenant, but he never really had the same motives as Morgoth. Morgoth was one of the Valar (demigods or Archangels), and was far more powerful than Sauron; in fact, Morgoth was the second most powerful entity in the universe after Eru Ilúvatar (who is basically analogous to the Judeo-Christian god). While Morgoth was still around, Sauron seems to have served him very faithfully, but after Morgoth's defeat and exile into the void, Sauron showed himself to be somewhat different from his former master.

From the very beginning, or nearly so, Morgoth's motives were purely destructive in nature: he wasn't trying to rule the universe so much as he was trying to destroy it altogether; he wasn't necessarily opposed to the idea of being a god unto the inhabitants of Arda, but his ultimate goal was to undo the creation. Sauron wasn't such a nihilist at heart. In fact, Sauron's initial motivation wasn't entirely malicious: he didn't want to destroy the world, or even rule it for his own sake; he saw suffering and chaos, and he believed he could impose a sense of order and harmony on the world, redirecting the harmful, negative impulses of humans, Elves, and Dwarves into constructive, positive purposes, thereby benefiting everyone involved. But he fell under the sway of Morgoth, and he followed his master's orders without question.

When Morgoth was finally overthrown, Sauron was summoned from Middle-earth to Aman, there to stand trial for his crimes against the Children of Ilúvatar and the creations of Eru, and to face the judgement of the Valar and Maiar, who are collectively known as the Ainur. Sauron seems to have repented, although this repentance may have been motivated more by fear than by genuine remorse. He struggled with his pride, but in the end, he couldn't bring himself to face the humiliation of being judged by his fellow Ainur. He fled to the east, and from that moment, he was beyond redemption.

He attempted to realize his ambitions - to impose order on the world and bring an end to the senseless destruction and chaos which plagued it, but, predictably, not everyone was willing to submit to the will of Morgoth's former lieutenant.

The Edain - the Men who became the Dúnedain, and who were the friends of the Elves - along with the Elves, resisted Sauron, and thwarted his attempts to subdue the world to his will. Sauron was outraged, and so began his desire to rule the world for his own benefit, rather than the benefit of all. He resolved to seize power by any means necessary, and to kill all who stood in his way. It was in this spirit that he made the Ring, and the Ring was a reflection of his will.

It is unlikely that Sauron deliberately made the Ring in such a way that the person who bore it would be pathologically possessive of it: this would only be possible if Sauron had anticipated that he might lose the Ring - something that would require that he was defeated in battle. If he was capable of predicting such a thing, I don't think he would have made the Ring in the first place. He obviously never imagined that anyone would try to destroy the Ring, which is exactly why it ended up being destroyed; I think he was similarly incapable of anticipating that he and the Ring would ever be separated. He thought he was invincible. He couldn't have imagined that the Ring would ever be anywhere but on his finger, and if he did imagine it, he wouldn't have made the Ring at all.

The Nature of the Ring

Now Sauron's lust [for power] and pride increased, until he knew no bounds, and he desired to make himself master of all things in Middle-earth... He brooked no freedom nor any rivalry, and he named himself Lord of the Earth.
- The Silmarillion: Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age

And much of the strength and will of Sauron passed into that One Ring; for the power of the Elven-rings was very great, and that which should govern them must be a thing of surpassing potency...
- The Silmarillion: Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age

At the end of the War of the Last Alliance (between Men and Elves), Gil-galad and Elendil struck down Sauron, but were killed themselves in the process. Elendil's sword, Narsil, broke beneath him, but his son Isildur took the hilt shard and cut the ring finger from Sauron's hand. Sauron was cast out of his bodily form, and Isildur took the Ring; Elrond and Cirdan the Shipwright urged him to destroy it in the fires of Mount Doom. But even though Sauron was defeated for the time, the Ring's power still remained, and Isildur could not bring himself to destroy it. He claimed it as an heirloom and a wereguild for his father's death. Shortly afterwards, he was ambushed by a host of Orcs, and put the Ring on his finger to escape. While swimming across a nearby river, the Ring was lost:

There the Ring betrayed [Isildur] and avenged its maker, for it slipped from his finger as he swam, and it was lost in the water. Then the Orcs saw him as he laboured in the stream, and they shot him with many arrows, and that was his end.
- The Silmarillion: Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age

And:

[Sauron] only needs the One; for he made that Ring himself, it is his, and he let a great part of his own former power pass into it, so that he could rule all the others.
- Gandalf, The Fellowship of the Ring

And:

‘What do you mean?’ said Frodo. ‘Surely the Ring was [Gollum's] Precious and the only thing he cared for? But if he hated it, why didn’t he get rid of it, or go away and leave it?’

‘You ought to begin to understand, Frodo, after all you have heard,’ said Gandalf. ‘He hated it and loved it, as he hated and loved himself. He could not get rid of it. He had no will left in the matter.

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.’
-ibid

And:

‘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!
- ibid

But why was the lure of the Ring so strong?

Because it tailored its appeal to the specific person it was calling to.

Tolkien scholar Michael Martinez writes on his "Middle-earth & J.R.R Tolkien Blog":

The Ring appears to have cherry-picked whom it would tempt.

We can see this tailor made allure in each case in which the Ring tempts someone:

Gandalf is described, in The Silmarillion, as a disciple of a Vala named Nienna, who is essentially a goddess of pity, mercy, and sympathy; the Ring appeals to these attributes:

[Frodo says] ‘But I have so little of any of these things! You are wise and powerful. Will you not take the Ring?’

‘No!’ cried Gandalf, springing to his feet. ‘With that power I should have power too great and terrible. And over me the Ring would gain a power still greater and more deadly.’ His eyes flashed and his face was lit as by a fire within. ‘Do not tempt me! For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself. Yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good. Do not tempt me! I dare not take it, not even to keep it safe, unused. The wish to wield it would be too great, for my strength. I shall have such need of it. Great perils lie before me.’
- The Fellowship of the Ring

Galadriel, proud and beautiful, is tempted by visions of being even more beautiful and beloved:

`And now at last it comes. You will give me the Ring freely! In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!‘...
- The Two Towers

Faramir:

‘So it seems,’ said Faramir, slowly and very softly, with a strange smile. `So that is the answer to all the riddles! The One Ring that was thought to have perished from the world. And Boromir tried to take it by force? And you escaped? And ran all the way — to me! And here in the wild I have you: two halflings, and a host of men at my call, and the Ring of Rings. A pretty stroke of fortune! A chance for Faramir, Captain of Gondor, to show his quality! Ha!’ He stood up, very tall and stern, his grey eyes glinting.

Frodo and Sam sprang from their stools and set themselves side by side with their backs to the wall, fumbling for their sword-hilts. There was a silence. All the men in the cave stopped talking and looked towards them in wonder. But Faramir sat down again in his chair and began to laugh quietly, and then suddenly became grave again.
- ibid

Note: In my opinion (and Tolkien's - he said so in a letter, but I can't include it here because of space restrictions) Faramir is not particularly tempted by the Ring, and this is because he, unlike his brother Boromir, is humble. Boromir, by way of comparison, is vainglorious and proud, and seeks glory in battle. Faramir does not relish military triumph, and kills only with regret. In the scene in which Faramir resists the Ring, he actually commands Frodo not to show it to him, and says he wouldn't pick the Ring up if he saw it laying on the road.

The same idea - that humble people are less tempted, or rather, more able to resist the temptation, than are proud and vainglorious people - applies to Samwise; again we see the Ring tailoring its appeal to the individual (bear in mind that Sam is a gardener):

His thought turned to the Ring, but there was no comfort there, only dread and danger. No sooner had he come in sight of Mount Doom, burning far away, than he was aware of a change in his burden. As it drew near the great furnaces where, in the deeps of time, it had been shaped and forged, the Ring’s power grew, and it became more fell, untameable save by some mighty will. As Sam stood there, even though the Ring was not on him but hanging by its chain about his neck, he felt himself enlarged, as if he were robed in a huge distorted shadow of himself, a vast and ominous threat halted upon the walls of Mordor. He felt that he had from now on only two choices: to forbear the Ring, though it would torment him; or to claim it, and challenge the Power that sat in its dark hold beyond the valley of shadows. Already the Ring tempted him, gnawing at his will and reason. Wild fantasies arose in his mind; and he saw Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age, striding with a flaming sword across the darkened land, and armies flocking to his call as he marched to the overthrow of Barad-dûr. And then all the clouds rolled away, and the white sun shone, and at his command the vale of Gorgoroth became a garden of flowers and trees and brought forth fruit. He had only to put on the Ring and claim it for his own, and all this could be.
- ibid

The Exception that Proves the Rule:

Now, to highlight the way the Ring works its influence on people, we will turn to the only character who is totally immune to it: Tom Bombadil. Martinez explains this in the blog post linked above. Here is the passage in which Bombadil and the Ring come face to face:

Indeed so much did Tom know, and so cunning was his questioning, that Frodo found himself telling him more about Bilbo and his own hopes and fears than he had told before even to Gandalf. Tom wagged his head up and down, and there was a glint in his eyes when he heard of the Riders.

‘Show me the precious Ring!’ he said suddenly in the midst of the story: and Frodo, to his own astonishment, drew out the chain from his pocket, and unfastening the Ring handed it at once to Tom.

It seemed to grow larger as it lay for a moment on his big brown-skinned hand. Then suddenly he put it to his eye and laughed. For a second the hobbits had a vision, both comical and alarming, of his bright blue eye gleaming through a circle of gold. Then Tom put the Ring round the end of his little finger and held it up to the candlelight. For a moment the hobbits noticed nothing strange about this. Then they gasped. There was no sign of Tom disappearing!

Tom laughed again, and then he spun the Ring in the air — and it vanished with a flash. Frodo gave a cry – and Tom leaned forward and handed it back to him with a smile.
- The Fellowship of the Ring

We see something astonishing here: This object, in which the fate of the entire world is bound, is powerless in Tom's hands. He thinks so little of it that he treats it like a toy, a mere trifle, of no importance or danger. How are we supposed to make sense of this? Martinez has a very plausible explanation, and again, it has to do with the Ring's modus operandi - appealing to the personality of the individual:

Given that Bombadil asked to see the Ring, and that he played with it and at one point had a gleam in his eye, I don’t see any justification for concluding that he was not tested by the Ring like others. Bombadil probably had the easiest test of all because he had already long before made his choice about mastery over others.

Bombadil allowed evil things to remain in his land — not because he wanted them there but because he did not want to destroy them. He probably set the boundaries of that land to keep those evil things from troubling Men and Hobbits (his neighbors).

Bombadil didn’t believe in creating prisons for the barrow-wights and... Old [Man] Willow; he just didn’t succumb to their evil ways. Hence, the Ring could have shown him a world where he roamed free and evil things didn’t bother him (and perhaps didn’t bother anyone else). Or the Ring could have shown him a world where he could “master” anyone and anything. The point is that the Ring definitely could have shown him something, even if it was more absurd and silly than what it showed to Sam.

And obviously, whatever the Ring showed Tom, he wasn't interested.

Tolkien explains why in Letter #144:

Tom Bombadil is not an important person – to the narrative. I suppose he has some importance as a 'comment'. I mean, I do not really write like that: he is just an invention, and he represents something that I feel important, though I would not be prepared to analyze the feeling precisely. I would not, however, have left him in, if he did not have some kind of function.

The story is cast in terms of a good side, and a bad side, beauty against ruthless ugliness, tyranny against kingship, moderated freedom with consent against compulsion that has long lost any object save mere power, and so on; but both sides in some degree, conservative or destructive, want a measure of control.

But if you have, as it were taken 'a vow of poverty', renounced control, and take your delight in things for themselves without reference to yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing, then the question of the rights and wrongs of power and control might become utterly meaningless to you, and the means of power quite valueless. It is a natural pacifist view, which always arises in the mind when there is a war.

So the thing that makes the Ring so appealing to almost everyone else is the same thing that makes it powerless against Tom Bombadil. He has deliberately chosen to reject control over anything but himself. He himself is good, but he doesn't take sides in the battle between good and evil. He doesn't care about who wins or loses, because he has renounced power, control, and conflict. These concepts have no meaning to Tom. He is exclusively an observer, and his only interest is in things for their own sake. Tom doesn't approve of Old Man Willow's attempt to eat the hobbits, and he stops him from doing so, but he still respects Old Man Willow and his right to exist. The fact that Old Man Willow is probably evil, at least to some extent, doesn't enter into the equation.

The Ring is a device of power, and power is its only means of influencing and manipulating people. Tom Bombadil is diametrically opposed to power, and therefore, the Ring is powerless to corrupt or tempt him. It is interesting (and amusing) to imagine the Ring desperately trying to find a chink in Tom's armor, searching in vain for a way to reach him, and silently screaming with rage when he treats the Ring like a silly little toy. Because the Ring tailors its appeal to the individual's unique weaknesses (i.e., desires), and because Tom has no desires (aside from keeping his wife Goldberry happy), the Ring simply couldn't reach Tom. He is entirely beyond its influence, and it is just another piece of jewelry to him.

Summary:

The Ring inspires the person who bears it to become pathologically possessive of it, because it has a better chance of being found by its master if someone has it. But as soon as the Ring realizes that its current keeper is no longer useful to its goal of returning to Sauron, it abandons him and finds its way to a new keeper. The Ring is in control at all times, and its only ambition is to find its way back to Sauron's hand. Its power comes from its ability to appeal to the individual's personal weaknesses (i.e., desires).


The information above is taken from the stories themselves (aside from the quote from Foster's Complete Guide to Middle-earth). I just finished doing some searches on Tolkien Gateway and in Tolkien's letters, and found the following info:

Tolkien Gateway:

Part of the nature of the Ring was that it slowly but inevitably corrupted its wearer, regardless of any intentions to the contrary. Whether this was specifically designed into the Ring's magic or is simply an artifact of its evil origins is unknown. (Sauron might be expected to endow his One Ring with such a property, but he probably never intended anyone besides himself to wear it. It may be a side-effect of the portion of Sauron's will that lies within the Ring, influencing the wearer.) For this reason the Wise, including Gandalf, Elrond and Galadriel, refused to wield it in their own defence, but instead determined that it must be destroyed. It appears that Hobbits, being more pure of heart than Men, and far less powerful than Elves, were the ideal vessels to resist its seductive power; this explains why Frodo and Bilbo bore it for long periods of time with very little ill effect. Even Gollum had not turned into a Wraith after 500 years of bearing the Ring.

The enigmatic Tom Bombadil was unaffected by the Ring, or rather, the Ring had no effect on him. This may be explained in many ways. (See the article on Tom Bombadil, which includes some theories.)


Letter #109:
You can make the Ring into an allegory of our own time, if you like: an allegory of the inevitable fate that waits for all attempts to defeat evil power by power. But that is only because all power magical or mechanical does always so work. You cannot write a story about an apparently simple magic ring without that bursting in, if you really take the ring seriously, and make things happen that would happen, if such a thing existed.


Letter #131:
The Ring was unbreakable by any smithcraft less than his own. It was indissoluble in any fire, save the undying subterranean fire where it was made – and that was unapproachable, in Mordor. Also so great was the Ring's power of lust, that anyone who used it became mastered by it; it was beyond the strength of any will (even [Sauron's] own) to injure it, cast it away, or neglect it. So he thought. It was in any case on his finger.

A moral of the whole (after the primary symbolism of the Ring, as the will to mere power, seeking to make itself objective by physical force and mechanism, and so also inevitably by lies) is the obvious one that without the high and noble the simple and vulgar is utterly mean; and without the simple and ordinary the noble and heroic is meaningless.

But to [make the Ring, Sauron] had been obliged to let a great part of his own inherent power (a frequent and very significant motive in myth and fairy-story) pass into the One Ring. While he wore it, his power on earth was actually enhanced. But even if he did not wear it, that power existed and was in 'rapport' with himself: he was not 'diminished'. Unless some other seized it and became possessed of it. If that happened, the new possessor could (if sufficiently strong and heroic by nature) challenge Sauron, become master of all that he had learned or done since the making of the One Ring, and so overthrow him and usurp his place. This was the essential weakness he had introduced into his situation in his effort (largely unsuccessful) to enslave the Elves, and in his desire to establish a control over the minds and wills of his servants.

With the aid of Sauron's lore [the Elven smiths] made Rings of Power ('power' is an ominous and sinister word in all these tales, except as applied to the gods).


Letter #153:
Also T[om] B[ombadil] exhibits another point in his attitude to the Ring, and its failure to affect him. You must concentrate on some pan, probably relatively small, of the World (Universe), whether to tell a tale, however long, or to learn anything however fundamental – and therefore much will from that 'point of view' be left out, distorted on the circumference, or seem a discordant oddity. The power of the Ring over all concerned, even the Wizards or Emissaries, is not a delusion – but it is not the whole picture, even of the then state and content of that pan of the Universe.


Letter #181:
Frodo was in such a position: an apparently complete trap: a person of greater native power could probably never have resisted the Ring's lure to power so long; a person of less power could not hope to resist it in the final decision. (Already Frodo had been unwilling to harm the Ring before he set out, and was incapable of surrendering it to Sam.)


Letter #191:
If you re-read all the passages dealing with Frodo and the Ring, I think you will see that not only was it quite impossible for him to surrender the Ring, in act or will, especially at its point of maximum power, but that this failure was adumbrated from far back. He was honoured because he had accepted the burden voluntarily, and had then done all that was within his utmost physical and mental strength to do. He (and the Cause) were saved – by Mercy : by the supreme value and efficacy of Pity and forgiveness of injury.


Letter #211:
You cannot press the One Ring too hard, for it is of course a mythical feature, even though the world of the tales is conceived in more or less historical terms. The Ring of Sauron is only one of the various mythical treatments of the placing of one's life, or power, in some external object, which is thus exposed to capture or destruction with disastrous results to oneself. If I were to 'philosophize' this myth, or at least the Ring of Sauron, I should say it was a mythical way of representing the truth that potency (or perhaps rather potentiality) if it is to be exercised, and produce results, has to be externalized and so as it were passes, to a greater or less degree, out of one's direct control. A man who wishes to exert 'power' must have subjects, who are not himself. But he then depends on them.


Letter #246:
[A reply to a reader's comments on Frodo's failure to surrender the Ring in the Cracks of Doom.]

Very few (indeed so far as letters go only you and one other) have observed or commented on Frodo's 'failure'. It is a very important point.

From the point of view of the storyteller the events on Mt Doom proceed simply from the logic of the tale up to that time. They were not deliberately worked up to nor foreseen until they occurred. But, for one thing, it became at last quite clear that Frodo after all that had happened would be incapable of voluntarily destroying the Ring. Reflecting on the solution after it was arrived at (as a mere event) I feel that it is central to the whole 'theory' of true nobility and heroism that is presented.

Frodo indeed 'failed' as a hero, as conceived by simple minds: he did not endure to the end; he gave in, ratted. I do not say 'simple minds' with contempt: they often see with clarity the simple truth and the absolute ideal to which effort must be directed, even if it is unattainable.

I do not think that Frodo's was a moral failure. At the last moment the pressure of the Ring would reach its maximum – impossible, I should have said, for any one to resist, certainly after long possession, months of increasing torment, and when starved and exhausted. Frodo had done what he could and spent himself completely (as an instrument of Providence) and had produced a situation in which the object of his quest could be achieved. His humility (with which he began) and his sufferings were justly rewarded by the highest honour; and his exercise of patience and mercy towards Gollum gained him Mercy: his failure was redressed.

When Sauron was aware of the seizure of the Ring [by Frodo inside Mount Doom] his one hope was in its power: that the claimant would be unable to relinquish it until Sauron had time to deal with him. Frodo too would then probably, if not attacked, have had to take the same way: cast himself with the Ring into the abyss. If not he would of course have completely failed.

[Asked if Frodo, after claiming the Ring as his own inside of the volcano, could have used it to fight off, or even command, the Nazgûl and use them against Sauron: Tolkien says the Nazgûl would have pretended to obey Frodo, and probably wouldn't have attacked him...]

Until Sauron himself came. In any case a confrontation of Frodo and Sauron would soon have taken place, if the Ring was intact. Its result was inevitable. Frodo would have been utterly overthrown: crushed to dust, or preserved in torment as a gibbering slave. Sauron would not have feared the Ring! It was his own and under his will. Even from afar he had an effect upon it, to make it work for its return to himself. In his actual presence none but very few of equal stature could have hoped to withhold it from him.

[Regarding how Galadriel was able to resist the lure of the Ring]

It was part of the essential deceit of the Ring to fill minds with imaginations of supreme power. But this the Great had well considered and had rejected, as is seen in Elrond's words at the Council. Galadriel's rejection of the temptation was founded upon previous thought and resolve.


Gandalf's explanation of why Bilbo was more or less unharmed by his long tenure as the Ringbearer; Frodo has just made clear his disgust at Bilbo for taking pity on Gollum. Gandalf explains that this is why Bilbo wasn't destroyed by the Ring:

'"Pity? It was Pity that stayed [Bilbo's] hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity."'

This obviously means that the intent of the bearer is crucial to his eventual fate after bearing the Ring. If you begin your time as Ringbearer with pity for unfortunate souls like Gollum, the Ring has less effect on you. This is very reminiscent of the Ring's tendency to amplify the bearer's personality - if you are already thirsty for power, the Ring will corrupt you almost immediately, as it did to Boromir, and as it did to Saruman despite the fact that he had never even seen it, or been anywhere near it at any time.


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    Absolutely outstanding answer: +1 – Often Right Jul 15 '15 at 1:02
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    @N_Soong - I actually have more to add to the answer - so much that I'm a bit worried that the answer will be too long to post if I add it. I'm putting the finishing touches on the additional material, and then I'll try to get it in there. – Wad Cheber Jul 15 '15 at 1:57
  • @N_Soong - it worked. That took a while. :) – Wad Cheber Jul 15 '15 at 2:36
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    @WadCheber : One thing is for sure, you are the hardest working member of SFF! +1! – Praxis Jul 17 '15 at 2:23
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    This might be the best answer to any question ever. – dgo Mar 16 '16 at 3:51

Given that the ring is inanimate, it can’t just roll back to Sauron if left on its own.

So, making people desire it is probably the best way to ensure that it isn’t just left in a drawer or dropped into a river to be lost forever unless some Hobbits happen to be fishing there on their birthday.

Once the ring is in someone’s possession, its ability to inspire obsession means they’re likely to use it. This draws them into a dark world, and makes them easier to sense by Sauron’s servants.

More powerful possessors of the ring are likely to become corrupted by the ring’s power, and thus try to use that power to rule the world. This will draw the attention of Sauron even more obviously, and the ring will eventually betray whoever possesses it, making it more likely that Sauron will then get it back.

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    This is an interesting theory, but it makes it sound like Sauron did it on purpose. An alternative theory: Power corrupts, and the ring is just about as close as you can get to Absolute Power in Middle Earth. – Plutor Jul 13 '15 at 11:59
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    Related, yet completed unrelated... There is a real life fungus which affects ants, making them act crazy and return to the natural "home" of the fungus. – Lindsey D Jul 13 '15 at 18:24
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    @Plutor I don't see how this is just "an interesting theory", and of course it is at least consequent of something Sauron did on purpose, or something he understood about the nature of the "absolute" power he was focussing. For me it seemed an integral and obvious aspect of the LOR plot; Gandalf and the Elves pretty much spell it out a few times. Of course, neither we nor any of the characters is ever inside Sauron's head such that any decisive claim about his intentions could be made, but it would be a bit goofy otherwise. – goldilocks Jul 13 '15 at 21:00
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    I think the problem with this idea is that it assumes that Sauron predicted that he would eventually lose the Ring. I don't think that makes sense. If he even dreamed that he and the Ring could be separated, he wouldn't have put so much of his power into it, or even made it in the first place. The same prideful mindset that led him to ruin- his failure to anticipate that someone might want to destroy it - would have prevented him from anticipating that he might be beaten and lose it, even temporarily. He thought he was invincible. – Wad Cheber Jul 15 '15 at 2:47
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    @PaulD.Waite - I think it just reflects Sauron's own will - the will to power and possession. It only tempts people who already desire power, and Tom Bombadil, who has totally renounced power and control, is completely immune to it. I like to think of this as a result of Sauron's inability to imagine anyone being able to renounce power and control, which are the only things Sauron cares about. The same dynamic is at work in Sauron's total failure to anticipate that someone might try to destroy the Ring rather than keeping it for themselves. – Wad Cheber Jul 15 '15 at 8:07

I don't have specific sources to cite for this, although I'm sure that Tolkien did touch on the matter in his voluminous notes and correspondence, but it has always been my impression that, while Sauron did greatly desire to be reunited with the Ring, the Ring itself did not particularly care who wielded it, provided that they were powerful and willing to serve its goals (or could eventually be corrupted to do so).

After all, the Ring already held the greater part of Sauron's essence; if it had any conscious thoughts (not that there's any evidence for that, as far as I know), it probably would've thought of itself as being Sauron, and of the spirit of Sauron dwelling in Mordor as merely a lesser, separated part of itself. While the Ring would surely have been happy to be reunited with the rest of Sauron's essence, it would've been equally willing to serve (and thereby, eventually, remake in its own image) any other powerful being.

Seen in this light, the possessiveness induced by the Ring makes perfect sense. Not only is the Ring itself greedy and power-hungry by nature, and therefore liable to induce greed in its wielder as it gradually gains control of the wielder's mind, but the Ring also wants to be wielded by the strongest person around — and, to the Ring, strength equals the ability to take and retain possession of whatever one desires.

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    Note that this doesn't necessarily conflict with Paul D. Waite's answer in any direct way; the Ring surely does hope that its wielder will eventually come into conflict with Sauron, since, one way or another, that will be an essential step in the Ring and its wielder gaining superiority over all others. Whether the Ring would then betray its wielder to reunite with Sauron, or betray Sauron to remain with its new wielder (who would then, eventually, become like Sauron himself) would presumably depend on the degree of mastery the current wielder had gained over the Ring (or vice versa). – Ilmari Karonen Jul 13 '15 at 11:40
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    Strongly disagree, the ring on two occasions abandoned its owner (Isildur and Gollum) and it is strongly implied that it tried to abandon Billbo and Frodo (Bilbo advises Frodo to keep the ring on a chain to prevent it slipping of unexpectedly, something it had a habit of doing) – user46509 Jul 13 '15 at 15:34
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    @Carl: The abandonment of Gollum is consistent enough with this explanation; Bilbo, though hardly a mighty conqueror himself, by then surely seemed a more likely host for the Ring than Gollum, who had done nothing with it but lurk underground for centuries. I do agree that the abandonment of Isildur is harder to explain; perhaps, having just recently left Sauron's possession, the Ring still mainly sought to return to its former host. Whatever the Ring wished, though, it surely misjudged the outcome; I don't see how lying at the bottom of a river for millennia could possibly have been its goal. – Ilmari Karonen Jul 13 '15 at 16:44
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    Since the Ring fell off of Gollum before Bilbo arrived, his qualities vs. Gollum's don't matter. – Oldcat Jul 13 '15 at 20:41
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    @MattGutting - You'll find that in my answer. "It was not Gollum, Frodo, but the Ring itself that decided things. The Ring left him." And "The Ring was trying to get back to its master" - Gandalf. The implication, as I see it, is clearly that Gandalf believes that the Ring "wants" to be found, and to be returned to its master, at least in a manner of speaking. – Wad Cheber Jul 15 '15 at 4:48

I believe it comes down to the desire of power and control beyond established and ordained limits, and the loss of identity and inability to see into the hearts of others if you succumb to that desire.

As explained in LOTR, those who already are powerful are more readily tempted to try to use the One Ring for their own purpose. Slightly different but interrelated, the desire for control ("binding") is great in those who already have power - especially among the wise of Middle Earth among whom rightly should have passed to the West already.

The Nazgul had a desire of power and control, as mortal kings among Men. The later Numenorians wanted to be able to thwart death and become immortal like the elves. This is to establish control that is contrary to the gift of mortality. Their mortality and short life spans made them especially attractive targets.

Sauron was a Maiar originally; like Morgoth, his original boss, Sauron wanted to establish a grand kingdom that encompassed all of Middle Earth, and for that matter, Arda. With each defeat, he became less able to control his outer appearance, eventually being defined only by his most singular feature of power and control: the Eye of Sauron. The desire for power and control consumed his individuality. What was left is exactly what was in the One Ring, which is the endless desire for power and control. Those who wear it, therefore, are tempted based on scale with their initial nature.

Because of the loss of identity, the One Ring, much like the blindness of Sauron (blind to the possibility that anyone would want to destroy the One Ring) afflicts the long term wearer, but otherwise doesn't have much sophistication beyond its own simple, evil, but overwhelming drives. Desire of power and control consumes identity. It cannot place complicated suggestions into the minds of the wearer, but it can enhance what is already in the wearer. Like Paul suggests, it cannot roll its way to Mordor; at best, it can expand and contract, grow heavier or lighter, in the presence of those who are closer to its nature. It didn't go crazy when it was close to Mt Doom, the only place it could be destroyed. It did however detect and respond to the power there.

In short, the One Ring inspires the desire of power and control in anyone, because it doesn't possess the ability or wisdom to choose to withold it, because it has no identity.

Perhaps in order to understand the nature of the evil of the ring, we should understand the nature of how such evil came about to begin with (which requires a breif review of Middle-Earth mythology).

In the beginning there was Eru Illuvatar and from his thought he created the Valar. The essence of the 'Fall' is a central theme in all of Tolkien's works, and in the Silmarillion Tolkien describes the way in which some of the Valar, under the influence of Melkor, who was the mightiest of the Ainur, went through a sort of morally and aesthetically oriented 'fall' from their original purpose. This original purpose was to contribute to the Music with their part, no more and no less. For originally Eru revealed to the Valar his grand 'theme' of the Music, and each free Valar was encouraged to participate in such a theme using their own devices as they pleased (so long as their Music contributed to the theme of Eru Illuvatar).

'Of the theme I have declared to you, I will now that ye make in harmony together a great Music. And since I have kindled you with the Flame Imperishable, ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices, if he will. But I will sit and hearken, and be glad that through you great beauty has been wakened into song.' Then the voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashion the theme of Illuvatar to a great music; and a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights, and the places of the dwelling of Illuvatar were filled to overflowing, and the Music and the Echo of the Music went out into the void, and it was not void.

With this being said, one of the Ainur, namely Melkor, desired to make Music for his own theme, though his Music was ultimately twisted since it was not of the theme of Eru the Creator. This, along with further sequences of events, resulted in a sort of 'fall' for Melkor and all other Valar that decided to follow their own 'themes' rather than the designated 'theme'. This of course resulted in chaos rather than harmony. It should be noted here, for discussion of the nature of the evil in Middle Earth, the purpose for which evil comes about. In Tolkien's Middle Earth, evil is the serving of the self compared to the serving of the rightful object of adoration. It is this essence that all evil things partake in and become subject to the 'Fall'.

With this in mind, we should now note the origin of the one ring of power. The ring of power was created and forged by Sauron in Mount Doom. Sauron was the 'apprentice' of Melkor, known also as Morgoth. But in the demise of Morgoth Sauron became the new Dark Lord. In order to secure his dominion over the creatures of Middle Earth Sauron devised to create certain rings vicariously through the Elvish smiths (through deception he managed it) in hopes that the rings would be controlled by the one ring of power he specifically created in Mount Doom. The rings made for the elves did not control their will, nor did the rings control the will of the dwarves. The nine rings made for men however did work as according to Sauron's plan. In order for the one ring of power to work Sauron had to poor his malice and will into the ring, the same malice and will of control and chaos that is the essence of the evil involved in the fall of all things from Eru Illuvatar. But here is where Tolkien notes in his writing and in his personal belief why the nature of evil in Middle Earth and consequently the one ring of power fail; in Melkor following his own 'theme' rather than the theme of Eru Illuvatar, Melkor ultimately deceives himself. His pride is not only morally and aesthetically displeasing, but also foolish. This is because for Tolkien there is a mysterious 'other will' at work in the way of all things besides the 'will of evil'. In the end evil destroys itself, as is seen in Gollum falling into Mount Doom due to his own desire for the ring and the Orcs in the tower killing themselves before Samwise even has to bother trying himself. In Sauron crafting the ring, there was an unintended consequence that he could not see because of the very thing that compelled the forgery of the ring to begin with; the self-destruction that accompanies pride. Sauron's very ambition was his demise. Note that it was Gollum's great desire for the ring that eventually resulted in the destruction of the ring, for if not for the conflicting wills of Frodo and Gollum the ring would be possessed by Frodo rather than destroyed.

In short, Tolkien's belief is that the creation cannot hope to surmount the Creator; the joke is always on them. This is perhaps the reason why the ring brings out this possessive nature in its owners. While it is in a certain way simply an indication of the malice and will of Sauron that enslaves a thing, it is also an unintended consequence of the ring itself; a consequence that ultimately led to the demise of Sauron by the destruction of the ring itself.

In my opinion I would say it's effect cones from the power that the one who shared the story held inside about it's truth and validity to their experience of it. It was a vivid idea that came to mind and I bet the writer saw as such a vivid valid real place somewhere in space and time and was actually a targeted or planned vessel or channel to deliver that reality which wanted to be birthed into this one as an effort to introduce magical happenings into this realm as a possible true exisistance. And the magic and intended transfer of an idea to spark minds to make it a reality, which actually does exist has such a powerful effect because deep with in us and far through time it is true and real and captures our attention to trigger our memory of what is or can be as well as spark imagination as to kick-start a creation.

  • ...what does this mean and how does it answer the question? – amflare Jul 5 at 16:47
  • How does it not answer the question. – VICTORIA CRO Jul 14 at 20:45

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