How Did Gandalf Find the One Ring?

Gandalf, Rings and Ringwraiths

In The Shadow of the Past, Gandalf identifies the ring once owned by Gollum as the One Ring.  And Frodo had decided he must leave The Shire.

In the next chapter, Three is Company, Gandalf advises Frodo to head for Rivendell.  He agrees, but he is still slow.  After waiting a couple of months, Gandalf heads down south to get news.  He then vanishes, as far as Frodo is concerned.

At Rivendell, we learn what happened.  Radagast met Gandalf and told him that the Ringwraiths had arisen.  Also Saruman wishes to meet him.  He lets this take priority, but decides to send a letter than should have advised Frodo to leave much earlier and make for Rivendell.  He entrusts it to Butterbur, who forgets about it.

Frodo would have been much safer if the letter had been delivered (spoiling an excellent series of adventures).

Realistically, someone as experienced as Gandalf would have sent a couple of backup letter.  But one must allow some bending of events for good story-telling.

Which Ring?

Now let’s step back and try working out the logic of how Gandalf knew that this was the One Ring, based on what he tells at Rivendell.  In the Shire, he mentions that only the Great Rings stop a mortal from ageing.  This appears to have applied to Bilbo, though he does come from a long-lived line.

If this is a Great Ring, then which?  Out of 7 dwarven rings, three went back to Sauron and four were destroyed by dragons. How he knows this is not explained, but Galadriel might have discovered it.  Or Dain Ironfoot might know and have trusted him with it.

Gandalf has one of the Elven rings, and presumably knows of the others: or at least that they are not lost.  But for all he knows, Gollum could have found one of the rings given to the mortal men.  Men who eventually faded and became Nazgul, ghosts enslaved by Sauron.  He might have feared such a fate for Bilbo, and noticed the start of a decay.  But he would also not see it as urgent.

Gandalf also tells of how he looked for Gollum and could not find him.  But then made a worrying connection:

“‘The memory of words at the Council came back to me: words of Saruman, half-heeded at the time. I heard them now clearly in my heart.

“‘The Nine, the Seven, and the Three,’ he said, ‘had each their proper gem. Not so the One. It was round and unadorned, as it were one of the lesser rings; but its maker set marks upon it that the skilled, maybe, could still see and read.’

“’What those marks were he had not said. Who now would know? The maker. And Saruman? But great though his lore may be, it must have a source. What hand save Sauron’s ever held this thing, ere it was lost? The hand of Isildur alone.”

Rings and Gems

Gandalf comes to suspect that Frodo might have One Ring, since the Nazgul rings and the others all had gems.  We get no details of which gems and which metal, except of the three Elven rings, seen at the very end:

“There was Gildor and many fair Elven folk; and there to Sam’s wonder rode Elrond and Galadriel. Elrond wore a mantle of grey and had a star upon his forehead, and a silver harp was in his hand, and upon his finger was a ring of gold with a great blue stone, Vilya, mightiest of the Three. But Galadriel sat upon a white palfrey and was robed all in glimmering white, like clouds about the Moon; for she herself seemed to shine with a soft light. On her finger was Nenya, the ring wrought of mithril, that bore a single white stone flickering like a frosty star. Riding slowly behind on a small grey pony, and seeming to nod in his sleep, was Bilbo himself…

“Then Cirdan led them to the Havens, and there was a white ship lying, and upon the quay beside a great grey horse stood a figure robed all in white awaiting them. As he turned and came towards them Frodo saw that Gandalf now wore openly upon his hand the Third Ring, Narya the Great, and the stone upon it was red as fire. Then those who were to go were glad, for they knew that Gandalf also would take ship with them.”

We’re not told what metal Gandalf’s ring was made of.  Nor anything about the other sixteen: not the specific gems, not the metal, nor whether there was an inherent difference between the seven for dwarves and the nine for men.  Still, the ring that Bilbo found is clearly not one of those.  But Gandalf does not treat this as complete proof that this is the One Ring.  There could have been another Great Ring, unknown to Saruman, who had arrived in Middle-Earth a thousand years after Sauron lost the One Ring.  Or perhaps Bilbo and Frodo had been just naturally long-lived?

(Unlike the film, Tolkien says nothing about Bilbo looking any older after he gives up the ring, though he is definitely less active when Frodo sees him in Rivendell.)

Regardless, Gandalf does not hurry.  He’d have no reason to think that Sauron would move soon, or have any reason to look for the One Ring.  Nor that he would think of hobbits as likely finders.  So he goes to Gondor, and learns the details from a long-forgotten document.

He then heads north, presumably intending to test Frodo’s ring.  But then learns that Aragorn has found Gollum, and stops to learn what he can from this strange creature.  This includes a realisation that Gollum is a hobbit, and that he has lived impossibly long unless a Great Ring was keeping him alive.

He is still not completely sure: there might have been another Great Ring that was overlooked.  Sauron might have made others that the elves never knew about.  So, he makes the final check and confirms that this is indeed the One Ring.

Frodo’s Delayed Departure

Frodo spontaneously decided he must leave The Shire, which impresses Gandalf.  And does this after first trying to give the ring to Gandalf, who refuses it.  (It would be too strong for him and would make him evil by persuading him to initially use the wrong methods for good end.)  Gandalf persuades Frodo that he should head for Rivendell, and also that it is best for his departure to attract as little attention as possible.  But Frodo is slower than he likes.  After two months, he decides to go down beyond the southern borders to get news.

He meets Radagast, as he later explains at the Council of Elrond:

“’At the end of June I was in the Shire, but a cloud of anxiety was on my mind, and I rode to the southern borders of the little land; for I had a foreboding of some danger, still hidden from me but drawing near. There messages reached me telling me of war and defeat in Gondor, and when I heard of the Black Shadow a chill smote my heart. But I found nothing save a few fugitives from the South; yet it seemed to me that on them sat a fear of which they would not speak. I turned then east and north and journeyed along the Greenway; and not far from Bree I came upon a traveller sitting on a bank beside the road with his grazing horse beside him. It was Radagast the Brown, who at one time dwelt at Rhosgobel, near the borders of Mirkwood. He is one of my order, but I had not seen him for many a year.

“‘Gandalf! he cried. ‘I was seeking you. But I am a stranger in these parts. All I knew was that you might be found in a wild region with the uncouth name of Shire.’

“‘Your information was correct,’ I said. ‘But do not put it that way, if you meet any of the inhabitants. You are near the borders of the Shire now. And what do you want with me? It must be pressing. You were never a traveller, unless driven by great need.’

“‘I have an urgent errand,’ he said. ‘My news is evil.’ Then he looked about him, as if the hedges might have ears. ‘Nazgul,’ he whispered. ‘The Nine are abroad again. They have crossed the River secretly and are moving westward. They have taken the guise of riders in black.’

“’I knew then what I had dreaded without knowing it.

“‘The enemy must have some great need or purpose,’ said Radagast; ‘but what it is that makes him look to these distant and desolate parts, I cannot guess.’

“‘What do you mean?’ said I.

“I have been told that wherever they go the Riders ask for news of a land called Shire.’

“‘The Shire,’ I said; but my heart sank. For even the Wise might fear to withstand the Nine, when they are gathered together under their fell chieftain. A great king and sorcerer he was of old, and now he wields a deadly fear. ‘Who told you, and who sent you?’ I asked.

“‘Saruman the White,’ answered Radagast. ‘And he told me to say that if you feel the need, he will help; but you must seek his aid at once, or it will be too late.’

“’And that message brought me hope. For Saruman the White is the greatest of my order. Radagast is, of course, a worthy Wizard, a master of shapes and changes of hue; and he has much lore of herbs and beasts, and birds are especially his friends. But Saruman has long studied the arts of the Enemy himself, and thus we have often been able to forestall him. It was by the devices of Saruman that we drove him from Dol Guldur. It might be that he had found some weapons that would drive back the Nine.

“‘I will go to Saruman,’ I said.

“‘Then you must go now,’ said Radagast; ‘for I have wasted time in looking for you, and the days are running short. I was told to find you before Midsummer, and that is now here.”

This is the last we hear of Radagast.  Elrond’s people look for him, but do not find him and he is not at his home at Rhosgobel.  One has to fear that Saruman had him murdered after he’d done his part in luring Gandalf to Orthanc.  He alone knows that Gandalf had gone there, and had Gandalf not escaped this might have remained unknown and Saruman would still have been trusted.  A smaller weaker fellowship might have brought the One Ring right to him.

Incidentally, the film changes one of the few solid facts that Tolkien gives.  Radagast lives ‘near the borders of Mirkwood’, not in the wood itself.  I hope some future remake will think more carefully and make him a much more serious character.

Gandalf’s Mistake

In Many Meetings, Gandalf tells Frodo:

“The Black Riders are the Ringwraiths…  But I did not know that they had arisen again or I should have fled with you at once.”

Presumably this is what he would have done had he known sooner.  As things are, he thinks it best to first talk to Saruman.  Being near Bree, he uses the unreliable Butterbur to warn Frodo in a letter.  He sends it on Midyear’s Day (22 June).  We learn of this in the chapter Strider, and in part it reads:

“Bad news has reached me here. I must go off at once. You had better leave Bag End soon, and get out of the Shire before the end of July at latest. I will return as soon as I can; and I will follow you, if I find that you are gone. Leave a message for me here, if you pass through Bree. You can trust the landlord (Butterbur). You may meet a friend of mine on the Road: a Man, lean, dark, tall, by some called Strider. He knows our business and will help you. Make for Rivendell. There I hope we may meet again. If I do not come, Elrond will advise you.”

This seems a bit odd – he still trusted Saruman and had not expected to be imprisoned.  Not expected Butterbur to forget about the letter, so that Frodo lingers till the 23rd September, which is almost too late.

He has of course all along been a little suspicious of Saruman and not told him about the curious ring found by Bilbo.  If he plans to go on keeping this a secret, he might find it hard to justify heading back up north if Saruman needs his help against Mordor or against the Nazgul.  He has certainly allowed for not being back for some time.

I had wondered how Gandalf could have gone south, but ended up in Bree, which is almost due east.  But he has earlier explained that he went east and north and was near Bree when he found Radagast.  Presumably he had been trying to gather more news.


Copyright © Gwydion M. Williams.