He intended it to be the most powerful of all Rings, able to rule and control the others (as long as their owners wore them). Since the other Rings were extremely powerful, Sauron was obliged to place most of his native power, life force and will into it to effect his purpose.
Creating the Ring simultaneously strengthened and weakened Sauron's power. On the one hand, as long as Sauron had the Ring, he could control the power of all the other Rings, and thus he was significantly more powerful after its creation than before; and, perhaps even more favourably, putting such a great portion of his own power into the Ring ensured Sauron's invulnerability so long as the Ring existed. On the other hand, by bounding his power within the Ring, Sauron became dependent on it — without it he lost much of his power and when cut from his hand he was unable to regain a physical form for 2,500 years.
The Ring appeared to be made of simple gold, but was impervious to damage. It could only be destroyed by throwing it into the pit of the volcanic Mount Doom where it had originally been forged. Unlike the other rings of power, the One Ring could not be destroyed by dragon fire. Like the lesser rings forged by the Elves as "essays in the craft" (but unlike the other Rings of Power) it bore no gem, but its identity could be determined by a simple (though little-known) test: when heated, it displayed a fiery Tengwar inscription in the Black Speech of Mordor. The lines were later taken up into a rhyme of lore describing the Rings, but they were evidently part of the spell that imbued the One Ring with power, since the Elves heard Sauron utter the same words during the Ring's creation whereupon they took off their own Rings and foiled his plan.
When a person wore the Ring, he/she would be partly "shifted" out of the physical realm into the spiritual realm. A side effect (but usually the first effect noticed) of the Ring was that it made the wearer invisible to physical beings like living Men but highly visible to spiritual beings like the Nazgûl. However the Ring dimmed the wearer's sight at least of the physical world, while at the same time sharpening all of the other senses. This "spiritual world" was where the Nazgûl were forced to dwell, but it was also a world in which the Calaquendi (Elves of Light) held great power: therefore Glorfindel was able to drive off the Witch-king at the Battle of Fornost and later again at the ford of Bruinen at Rivendell.
The enigmatic Tom Bombadil was unaffected by the Ring. This may be explained in many ways. (See the article on Tom Bombadil, which includes some theories.)
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 effect was specifically designed into the Ring's magic or is simply an artifact of its evil origins is unknown. For this reason the Wise, including Gandalf, Elrond, and Galadriel, refused to wield it in their own defence, but instead determined that it should be destroyed.
The ring had the ability to change its size. As well as adapting to fingers varying in size from Sauron's to Frodo's, it sometimes suddenly expanded in order to give its wearer the slip.
Normally the One Ring appears perfectly plain and featureless, but when cast into fire the inscription appears in fiery letters on the inner and outer surface of the Ring. A drawing of the Inscription appears in Book I, Chapter 2 of The Fellowship of the Ring, "The Shadow of the Past". A transliteration appears in Book II, Chapter 2, "The Council of Elrond", where the inscription is read by Gandalf:
Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul, ash nazg thrakatulûk, agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.
Hearing these words caused everyone in the Council to tremble. The Elves also put their hands over their ears, either due to their hatred of Sauron, or else due to actual pain the words bring.
The change in the wizard's voice was astounding. Suddenly it became menacing, powerful, harsh as stone. A shadow seemed to pass over the high sun, and the porch for a moment grew dark. All trembled, and the Elves stopped their ears.
Roughly translated, the words mean:
One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them, one ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.
The inscription uses Elvish lettering because all forms of writing Tolkien describes at that time were invented by the Elves.
Some recent editions of The Fellowship of the Ring accidentally omit the first two clauses of this phrase from Chapter 2, an error which was corrected by the time of the 50th Anniversary editions. An extended verse introduced three of the races inhabiting Middle-earth, as well as the eponymous title character, the Lord of the Rings:
Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
Gandalf first learned of the Ring-inscription when he read the account that Isildur had written before marching north to his death and the loss of the Ring. When Isildur had cut the Ring from Sauron's hand, it was burning hot, and so Isildur was able to transcribe the inscription before it faded. When Gandalf subsequently heated the ring that Bilbo Baggins had found and passed on to Frodo the inscription appeared, and the wizard then had no doubt that it was the One Ring.
The term Ring-bearer is used in The Lord of the Rings to describe any being who has possession of the One Ring.
In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo Baggins is appointed to be the Ring-bearer by the Council of Elrond in Rivendell. He was to carry the One Ring from Rivendell to the Crack of Doom in Mordor and destroy it before Sauron's minions, the Ringwraiths, could retrieve it.
The title is also given to two other hobbits who carried the Ring. They were Bilbo Baggins (who found the Ring in Tolkien's first novel, The Hobbit) and Frodo's companion Samwise Gamgee (who carried it briefly in Mordor). Because of their position as Ring-bearers, they were granted passage to the Undying Lands.
Others bore the Ring during its existence, but were not actually called "Ring-bearers" in any Tolkien work. They include:
At least two others handled the Ring but did not actually wear it: Déagol, who found it in the River Anduin but was murdered soon after, and Gandalf, who cast it into Frodo's fireplace to test whether it was the One Ring.
The bearers of all the other Rings of Power are also considered Ring-bearers.
In S.A. 3261 Ar-Pharazôn, the last and most powerful king of Númenor, landed at Umbar at the head of a gigantic army to do battle with Sauron. The sheer size and might of the Númenórean army was enough to cause Sauron's forces to flee. Sauron surrendered to Ar-Pharazôn and was taken back to Númenor as a prisoner. Tolkien, in a letter written in 1958 (#211) wrote that the surrender was both "voluntary and cunning" so he could gain access to Númenor. Sauron was able to use the Númenóreans' fear of death as a way to turn them against the Valar, and toward Melkor-worship and human sacrifice.
Although Sauron's body was destroyed in the Fall of Númenor his spirit was able to travel back to Middle-earth and wield the one ring in his renewed war against the Last Alliance of Elves and Men between S.A. 3429 and 3441. Wrote Tolkien "I do not think one need boggle at this spirit carrying off the One Ring, upon which his power of dominating minds now largely depended". (letter #211).
The Ring was cut from Sauron's hand by Isildur at the slopes of Mount Doom, and he in turn lost it in the River Anduin (at the Gladden Fields) just before he was killed in an Orc ambush (). Since it indirectly caused Isildur's death by slipping from his finger, it was known in Gondorian lore as Isildur's Bane.
The Ring remained hidden in the river bed for almost two and a half millennia, until it was discovered on a fishing trip by a Stoor Hobbit named Déagol. He was murdered by his friend and relative Sméagol, who stole the Ring, and was changed by the Ring's influence over many ages into the creature known as Gollum. The Ring, which Sauron had endowed with a will of its own, manipulated Gollum into settling in the Misty Mountains near Mirkwood, where Sauron was beginning to resurface. There he and it remained for nearly five hundred years, until the Ring tired of him and fell off his finger as he was returning from killing a goblin.
As is told in The Hobbit, Bilbo found the Ring while he was lost in the caverns of the Misty Mountains, near Gollum's lair. When The Hobbit was written, Tolkien had not yet conceived of the Ring's sinister back-story. Thus, in the first edition of The Hobbit, Gollum surrenders the Ring to Bilbo as a reward for winning the Riddle Game. However, after Tolkien revised the nature of the Ring for The Lord of the Rings, he realized that the Ring's grip on Gollum would never permit him to give it up willingly. Therefore, Tolkien revised this chapter in the second edition of The Hobbit: after losing the Riddle Game to Bilbo, Gollum went to get his "Precious" (as he always called it) so he could kill and eat him, but flew into a rage when he found it missing. Deducing that Bilbo had it from his last question— "What have I got in my pocket?"— Gollum chased him through the caves, not knowing that the Hobbit had discovered the Ring's powers of invisibility and was following him to the cave's exit. Bilbo escaped Gollum and the goblins who inhabited the Misty Mountains by remaining invisible, but left that power out of the story he told the dwarves he was travelling with. In fact, the version of the events that Bilbo told was the version of the first edition of The Hobbit. Gandalf, who was also traveling with the dwarves, later forced the real story out of Bilbo, and was immediately suspicious of the Ring's powers.
Gollum, meanwhile, eventually left the Misty Mountains to track down and reclaim the Ring. He wandered for decades, eventually to be captured and interrogated by Sauron himself, to whom he revealed the existence of Bilbo and the Shire.
In T.A. 3001, following Gandalf's counsel, Bilbo gave the Ring to his nephew and adopted heir Frodo. This first willing surrender of the Ring to another in its history sparks the chain of events which eventually led to its unmaking. It is one example of the frequent interplay between apparent chance and destiny, a ubiquitous theme in The Lord of the Rings.
By this time Sauron had begun to regain his power, and the Dark Tower in Mordor had been rebuilt. In order to prevent Sauron from reclaiming his Ring, Frodo and eight other companions set out from Rivendell for Mordor in an attempt to destroy the Ring in the fires of Mount Doom. During the quest, Frodo gradually became more and more susceptible to the Ring's power, and feared that it was going to corrupt him. When he and Sam discovered that Gollum was on their trail and "tamed" him into guiding them to Mordor, he began to feel a strange bond with the wretched, treacherous creature, seeing a possible future of himself. Gollum gave in to the Ring's temptation, however, and betrayed them to the spider Shelob. Believing Frodo to be dead, Sam bore the Ring himself for a short time and experienced the temptation it induced, wore it briefly twice, although he never succumbed to its deeper temptation.
Sam rescued Frodo from a band of orcs at the Tower of Cirith Ungol and returned the Ring to him but feared that the toll it was taking was too great. And in the end, it was: although Frodo and Sam, followed by Gollum, eventually arrived at Mount Doom, Frodo was overcome by its corrupting nature and claimed the Ring for himself rather than destroy it. However, he was attacked by Gollum, who bit off the finger holding the Ring before falling into the fires of Mount Doom, finally destroying the Ring.
A mortal wearing the Ring was made effectively invisible except to those able to perceive the non-physical world, with only a thin, shaky shadow discernible in the brightest sunlight. Whether immortals would be made invisible by it is unknown. The only direct example given is Tom Bombadil, who was anomalous in other ways. The Ring would also extend a mortal possessor's life indefinitely by preventing natural aging. Gandalf explains that it does not "grant new life", but that the possessor merely "continues" until life becomes unbearably wearisome. However, the Ring could not protect its bearer from immediate death or destruction; Gollum perished in the Crack of Doom while in possession of the Ring, and even Sauron himself (as the only one who could truly control the full power of the Ring) could not preserve his original body from destruction during the downfall of Númenor. Likewise, the Ring could not protect its bearer from physical harm; Frodo (while bearing the Ring) was seriously injured by the Witch King on Weathertop. In the same way, Frodo and Sauron each lost a finger while actually wearing the ring. Like the Nine Rings, the One Ring also has the effect of physically corrupting mortals who wore it for extended periods of time, eventually transforming them into wraiths. Hobbits prove to be somewhat resistant to this process, as proved by Gollum.
It might have also given its wielder the ability to read minds, as Galadriel suggested to Frodo when he asked if he could learn to communicate telepathically as she did. On at least one occasion, the Ring sharpened its wearer's hearing at the expense of his visual acuity, and it may at that time have granted understanding of unknown languages.
As it contained the better part of Sauron's native power, it was endowed with a malevolent sentience of sorts. While separated from Sauron, the Ring would strive to return to him, both by impelling its bearer to yield to Sauron or his servants, and by abandoning its possessor at key moments. For example, it slipped off of Gollum's finger when the time was right for it to be brought back into the world at large. Frodo carried it on a chain, having been warned by Bilbo that it tended to slip away if it were not attended to otherwise.
To fully master all of these abilities, a wielder of the Ring would need an extremely disciplined and well-trained mind, a strong will, and a high degree of spiritual development. Those with weaker minds such as Hobbits and lesser Men, would have gained very little benefit from the Ring, let alone realize its full potential. Even for those with the necessary prerequisites it would have taken time to master the Ring's powers to the point where he was strong enough to overthrow Sauron. Yet in the end, the Ring's inherent corruption would have twisted its bearer into another Dark Lord as evil as Sauron was, or worse, regardless of his intentions at the outset. Ironically, this is the main appeal that the ring holds over all those who come in contact with it. It is seen as a symbol of hope for anyone strong enough to dominate it, they would have the power to defeat Sauron and bring peace to the world.
Despite its powerful qualities, the Ring was not omnipotent, nor was its power over others absolute. Three times Sauron suffered military defeat with it in his possession, first by Tar-Minastir in the S.A. 1700, and again by Ar-Pharazôn in S.A. 3262 when Númenórean power so overawed his armies that they deserted him. He was defeated militarily once more at the end of the Second Age by the Last Alliance of Elves and Men, which culminated in his personal defeat at the hands of Gil-galad and Elendil. Tolkien indicates that this would not be possible during the waning years of the Third Age when the strength of the free peoples were greatly diminished. At that time there were no remaining heroes of the stature of Gil-galad, Elendil, or Isildur; the strength of the Elves was fading and they were departing en masse to the Blessed Realm of Aman; the Dwarves had been driven out of Moria and would have been unwilling to concentrate their strength in any event; and the Númenórean kingdoms had either declined or been destroyed, and had few allies. In this environment, Sauron wielding the One Ring would have been able to conquer the entire continent with ease.
In consideration of the trials the Ringbearers had endured, special dispensation was granted them by the Valar to travel to the Undying Lands, where it was hoped they could find rest and healing. At the close of The Return of the King, Bilbo and Frodo embark for the voyage to the West along with Galadriel, Elrond, and many of their folk, as well as Gandalf. Near the end of his life, Samwise is also said to have been taken to the Undying Lands.
Tolkien always strongly held that The Lord of the Rings was not allegorical, particularly in reference to political events of his time such as World War II or the Cold War. At the same time he conceded "applicability" as being within the "freedom" of the reader, and indeed many people have been inclined to view the One Ring as a symbol or metaphor. The notion of a power too great for humans to safely possess is an evocative one, and already in the 1930s there were technologies available to suggest the idea. By the time the work was published, though not when most of it was written, the existence of nuclear power and nuclear weapons were common knowledge, and the Ring was often taken as symbolic of them. Another reading is that the Ring represents the lust for power, which in Tolkien's view always corrupts. The lure and effect of the Ring and its physical and spiritual after-effects on Bilbo and Frodo are obsessions that have been compared with drug addiction; actor Andy Serkis who played Gollum in the film trilogy cited drug addiction as an inspiration for his performance.
In Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, the wearer of the Ring is always portrayed as moving through a shadowy realm where everything is distorted. In the book, neither Bilbo Baggins nor Frodo Baggins ever mentioned anything about this while using the Ring, but when Sam puts on the Ring at the end of The Two Towers he does experience something similar to this. This is the only time that this is mentioned in the novel and could be attributed to Sauron's power increasing. Sam never wore the Ring on screen in Jackson's films. The actual Ring for the movies was designed and created by Jens Hansen Gold & Silversmith in Nelson, New Zealand. In The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), Gandalf (Ian McKellen) pronounces the Ring-inscription in a slightly different manner and at a different time.
Cursed rings, such as those described by both Plato in his Republic (the Ring of Gyges), and in Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle operas, have a long history in literature. Although Tolkien strongly denied any connection, it is possible that the One Ring was inspired by the Andvarinaut of the Volsunga saga, the central artefact of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung).
In the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford there is a collection of English "Posy-rings" dating from the 17th and 18th centuries, which bear a striking resemblance to the One Ring. The rings, all in gold have short rhyming inscriptions on their inside, typically messages of love. The collection was presented to the museum in 1933 by Dr Joan Evans. It seems likely that Tolkien was aware of the existence of these rings at that date.
Tolkien was an expert in early English, and was an advisor to archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler during excavations of a temple complex in Lydney Park, Gloucestershire in the early part of the 20th Century. At the site, amongst other finds, a curse tablet was discovered (dated to late 4th century AD), bearing the following Latin inscription:
It has been suggested that this was an inspiration for Tolkien's One Ring, as through Mortimer Wheeler, Tolkien would have been aware of the ring in question (the Vyne Ring) discovered in Silchester.