How is it possible that Gandalf failed to connect the dots pointing to Bilbo’s ring being the One Ring – Sauron’s Ring of Power? In our previous post, we looked at Gandalf’s history with the One Ring through the Silmarillion and The Hobbit. In this post, we’ll delve into the Lord of the Rings-era material to finally figure out when Gandalf knew it was the One Ring and why he seemed to do nothing about it.
Gandalf and the Ring Between the Stories
There are 59 years between the ending of The Hobbit (2942) and the Long-Expected Party kicking off the Lord of the Rings (3001). Across those nearly six decades, Gandalf learned much more about the Ring.
At the final White Council in 2953, Gandalf asked Saruman about the One Ring. Details about why he asked are sketchy, but it could possibly be that he finally began to seriously consider the idea that Bilbo’s magic ring was the One Ring. In the Silmarillion, however, we’re told that Gandalf wanted to attack Sauron before the Dark Lord found the One Ring again.
If Gandalf had any fears of this, they were (maybe) set aside by the assurances of Saruman who had studied the Rings of Power in depth. “Into Anduin it fell, and long ago, I deem, it was rolled to the Sea. There it shall lie until the end, when all this world is broken and the deeps are removed.”
Elrond, who was also at the White Council, was still a bit nervous that the One Ring might be found. Gandalf, however, likely took Saruman’s position, not knowing that Saruman had invented the story of it washing out to sea and was looking for the One Ring for himself.
Meanwhile, Gandalf kept an eye on Bilbo and noticed that he was not aging. A shadow fell on Gandalf again, but he pacified his fears – Bilbo came from a long-lived on his mother’s side. So he waited.
Let’s review. While the Three Rings of the Elves are accounted for, the location of the remaining Rings of Power are not all known. It’s assumed that at least four of the Seven Rings of the Dwarves are destroyed, but the Nine Rings for Men are definitely still in play.
It’s not clear whether Gandalf ever knew their location. Tolkien stated a good number of times that Sauron held the Nine Rings after turning the Men into Ringwraiths. There’s no reason for Gandalf to just assume that Sauron couldn’t disperse the Nine Rings again to make more wraiths. The same is true for the Seven Rings (which are probably identical to the Nine). The same would not be true for the One Ring, though it would be fairly obvious if Sauron possessed that again.
But here’s the rub – the Seven and Nine Rings all had jewels. However, can we assume that Gandalf definitely knew this? His hardcore research on the Rings of Power wouldn’t happen until 3017. Whether this was common knowledge among the Elves is unknown. Regardless, the chances of Bilbo’s ring being the One Ring, which to his knowledge was sunk in the sea, were slim. How would it have wound up in the caves under the Misty Mountains?
The Long-Expected Suspicion
Gandalf attended Bilbo’s eleventy-first birthday/going away party in 3001 of the Third Age. Bilbo wanted to play a final joke on the Hobbits by slipping the Ring on his finger and disappearing. But as he did, Gandalf created a “blinding flash” in hopes of giving the guests a more or less logical explanation for how Bilbo “vanished.” He was worried that they’d be talking about it for years to come. Gandalf also noticed that Bilbo had hardly aged, which was certainly a known effect of the Rings of Power.
At this point, Gandalf is nearly certain that Bilbo’s ring is one of those Rings. “That was the first real warning I had that all was not well.”
Bilbo had agreed to leave the ring with Frodo, but put up quite a fight, acting exactly like Gollum. Gandalf picked up on this immediately and saw that it was likely his ring that was causing this behavior.
After Bilbo left and Frodo took possession of the Ring, Gandalf warned him not to use it. “But keep it secret, and keep it safe!”
This was when Gandalf knew “knew at last that something dark and deadly was at work.”
“The Shadow of the Past”
Three years after Bilbo’s departure, Gandalf visited Frodo “taking a good look at him.” Then, over the next few years, he checked back in asking about Frodo’s health. He was obviously paying close attention to how the Ring was or wasn’t changing Frodo.
Realizing he wasn’t getting anywhere with Saruman, who still held that the One Ring was lost at sea, Gandalf searched for information on his own. He went to Minas Tirith to read Isildur’s own writings about how he acquired the Ring and its effects on the bearer. He then interviewed Gollum, who had been captured by Aragorn. From Gollum he learned where Bilbo’s ring was found – in the River Anduin along the Gladden Fields – right where Isildur was killed.
This perfectly explained how the Ring could have gotten from Sauron to Isildur to Gollum to Bilbo and finally to Frodo.
With this knowledge, Gandalf hurried to the Shire where he made one final test. The Scroll of Isildur explained how to see the inscription on the Ring. When Gandalf set it in the fire, the writing could be read. It was only then that he knew for sure.
Why Gandalf Didn’t or Couldn’t Act
The morning after Gandalf arrived in the Shire, Frodo asked him how long he had known that Bilbo’s ring was the One Ring. Gandalf avoided the question and Frodo had to ask again. He tried once more to evade it, and then gave an incredibly long explanation of the history of his doubts before finally coming around to his answer.
Gandalf basically knew that the One Ring was in the Shire for seventeen year, and many ask why he did nothing.
To this there are two answers.
First, what could he do? Bilbo would not willingly give up the Ring to Gandalf. To get it, Gandalf would have to steal it – which is exactly how both Gollum and Bilbo acquired the Ring. Further, Gandalf would have to steal it from a dear friend, just like Gollum. This would be playing into the Ring and its will.
Second, if Gandalf had taken the Ring, as he told Frodo the night of the departure, he would 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.
Leaving it with Frodo, in the safety of the Shire, was the best possible solution. Nobody even knew of the Shire in 3001 – not Sauron, not Saruman (probably). Regardless, there’s no reason at all that anyone would even consider a Hobbit to be the ringbearer.
In the end, as we see by the conclusion of the story, Gandalf made the right decision – knowingly leaving the One Ring with Frodo in the Shire was his action. Any other decision would likely have ended with either Sauron or Saruman holding the Ring and destroying the world.
Playing off this little motif, we’ll take a look at what Sauron knew about the One Ring, Gollum, Baggins, the Shire and Gandalf. Coming up next week!